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Estate Agent in West Country pleads guilty to 250,000 pound property fraud

Russell Baker pleaded guilty on Friday 19 February 2016 to nine offences of fraud in relation to his former estate agency business in Bovey Tracey, Devon.

Exeter Crown Court was told by Tom Bradnock, counsel for Devon & Somerset Trading Standards Service, about how Russell Baker, 58, of Ilsington, Newton Abbot, bought a well-known Estate Agents business called Ashby’s. 

He then created a web of limited companies through which he operated the business.

A significant part of Bakers business was the letting out of properties on behalf of landlords. As part of that process the tenants would hand over a deposit, usually the equivalent of a month’s rent. 

Tenancy deposits are meant to be passed to a government approved scheme to ensure that the deposit is properly protected but the deposits never reached the scheme, Baker simply pocketed the money.

A number of landlords also allowed Baker to manage their properties for them but they found that they weren’t receiving rental payments from Baker, even though the properties were occupied and the tenants were paying their rent. Baker simply pocketed the money.

Baker’s financial dealings were particularly hard to unravel because he arranged for all of the monies paid to one of his limited companies to go into the bank accounts of another of his limited companies.

As the investigation expanded, and Devon and Cornwall Police also become involved in a joint investigation, a couple were found who had paid a £22,500 deposit to Baker in relation to a house purchase. Baker never passed the deposit to the couple’s solicitor, he simply pocketed the money.

Investigators then uncovered a number of friends and acquaintances of Baker that he had approached, asking them to help him by lending him money.

The story that Baker told tended to relate to the need for a cash injection to help his business through a rough patch. The lender was also encouraged with the offer of a very good rate of return and a written ‘contract’. 

The reality however, was that Baker was already massively in debt, not paying any tax, and operating his business in a fraudulent manner so that the business was destined to collapse.

Investigators believe that Baker thought that he would be able to hide his activities behind the cloak of his limited companies. 

One landlord tried to sue Baker in the civil court but Baker managed to convince the court that the debt was a company debt rather than a personal one and so the court action failed.

Investigators found victims that had lent Baker sums from £500 to £105,000 resulting in the loss to victims totalling £455,000, although Baker only faced charges relating to £255,000 because one victim had died. Only a tiny proportion of the money that Baker ‘borrowed’ was returned to the lenders.

Baker has a previous conviction for fraud. On 10 June 2014, he was sentenced to a two year conditional discharge by Exeter Magistrates Court in relation to Baker forging the signature of his then business partner in relation to car leasing documents.

Devon & Somerset Trading Standards attribute much of the success of their investigation to the willingness of Bakers victims to come forward and provide evidence.

Cllr Roger Croad

Councillor Croad said: “Baker was unscrupulous in deceiving his customers, his friends, and the authorities. He was such an accomplished cheat that some of the friends that he betrayed didn’t see themselves as the victim of a crime when initially approached by the investigators. Baker’s activities have had a massive impact on many people in the Bovey Tracey area but it was their willingness to support this investigation that has produced this successful conviction. This has been a complex investigation, involving hard work from our officers and also invaluable assistance from Devon & Cornwall Police.”

Sentencing has been formally deferred until Monday 12 September 2016 so that Baker’s assets, which are currently restrained by a court order under the Proceeds of Crime Act, can be sold and compensation can be made available to the victims on a pro-rata basis. Baker is co-operating with this process.

Councillor David Hall, Deputy Leader of Somerset County Council, with responsibility for Trading Standards - “This is a fantastic use of the Proceeds of Crime Act by the Devon and Somerset Trading Standards Service. They have identified assets belonging to Baker, had those assets restrained by the Crown Court, and are now seeking to return monies to the victims of these crimes.”

Detective Constable Richard Griggs, Totnes CID, said: “Baker brought misery to many people and abused his position in the community. This co-ordinated investigation with Trading Standards is an excellent example of how agencies are working together to bring offenders to justice.”

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