A TIP-OFF from a Tilehurst woman has landed two money launderers involved in a scam worth more than £500,000 behind bars.

Anthony Lea, of West End Road, St Helens, and Ian Hollis, Calahonda, Spain, were today locked up after processing thousands of pounds of stolen money from 'vulnerable' pensioners in 2011.

Lea, an ex-solicitor struck off in 2001 for misusing clients’ funds, and Hollis, 59, a bar owner in Spain who did not turn up for his sentencing because he is still in the Iberian country, were part of an organised crime group that manipulated hundreds of timeshare investors into paying up to £2,000 to manage their holiday policies for them.

Reading Crown Court heard how the organised crime group paid the pair to launder the money through several UK and overseas bank accounts before it was withdrawn in cash.

Lea used the bank accounts of associates to make the money laundering appear legitimate and at the height of his crimes dropped off £180,000 in cash to an ‘unknown person’ at a motorway service station.

Their actions only came to light five years after their offending when a Tilehurst resident tipped off Trading Standards.

What are timeshares and what was the scam?

Timeshares were set up in the 1970s and allowed people to pay a sum of money to visit a location every year, usually for a week, according to Forbes.

But they were banned in Spain and law-abiding ‘holiday-club’ policies were created instead that allowed holiday-makers to go to different places after paying up.

These policies were indefinite, however, and as investors got older, they could not travel as much.

The only way to get out of the policies was if somebody bought them off the owners.

Reading Crown Court heard how the criminals posed as so-called ‘resale firms’ named Simple Timeshare Sales and Marketing, Find Me Travel and UK Holiday Consultants in order to do just this.

These firms made attractive offers to purchase consumers’ policies and asked for advance fees of between £1,000 and £2,000.

After payment, the companies could not be contacted. Policyholders were then contacted by an apparently unconnected company which offered not only to sell back the policy but also to recover the advanced fees.

Despite consumers paying thousands of pounds to these firms, the investigation found no evidence that any policies were actually sold.

Stock image of a plane via PA.

Stock image of a plane via PA.

The money was found to have passed through a number of UK and overseas bank accounts before being withdrawn in cash.

Unfortunately, the people who received the funds and committed the frauds were never located and their identities remain unknown.

To maintain anonymity, the organised crime group secured the assistance of Anthony Lea and Ian Hollis who allowed their bank accounts to be used in return for a fee.

Reading Crown Court heard how Lea passed a bag with £180,000 in cash to an ‘unknown person’ at a motorway service station while in the thick of the scam.

Lea let more than £465,000 pass through his bank account whereas Hollis accounted for £74,000.

The St Helens man used the bank accounts of a trusted solicitor and an estate agent to make the money laundering appear legitimate.

The scam only came to light in 2016 following a tip-off from a Tilehurst resident who had been defrauded by the organised crime group.

What happened after the scam came to light?

Originally, Lea was charged in 2019 alongside the solicitor and estate agent he used but accusations against them were dropped when it emerged the 66-year-old had been using their accounts for his own gain.

Lea pleaded guilty to four counts of acquiring criminal property and a trial date for Hollis was set for June 2020 but did not get underway until November 2021 due to Covid-based interruptions.

Hollis did not appear for his trial as he is currently living in Spain, and a previous attempt to get him to fly back to England for hearings were scuppered when he presented a positive Covid test that turned out to be fake.

A warrant for his arrest has been issued.

What sentences did the men receive?

Kate O’Raghallaigh, defending for Lea, said her client was unaware of the criminal activities taking place and merely acted as a conduit for the money.

However, Her Honour Judge Campbell rejected this argument and said it would have been 'difficult' for Lea to ‘turn a blind eye’ given the scale of the operation.

She sentenced Lea to three years in prison for his crimes and Hollis to 18 months behind bars for four counts of the same offence.

HHJ Campbell said Hollis would be taken straight to prison if he ever returned to the country.

The men were sentenced at Reading Crown Court on Thursday, March 24.

What did the authorities have to say?

Cllr Hilary Cole, of West Berkshire Council, said: “This was an extremely complex investigation conducted by highly skilled trading standards and financial investigation teams into money laundering offences valued at over £500,000.

“All of this was money lost to victims of fraud including the original West Berkshire victim that led to us unearthing the scale of offending.

“We are grateful for the support of colleagues from the National Trading Standards Tri Region Investigation Team.”

Trish Burls, from the National Trading Standards Investigation Team, said: “We are pleased to have been able to assist and support the Public Protection Partnership Trading Standards Service in this successful investigation into a complex series of advance fee frauds which often targeted older members of the public, over a considerable period.

“Victims across the UK were targeted repeatedly with offers to sell their holiday and timeshare club memberships.

“As a result of the hard work and dedication of all involved, both defendants pleaded guilty to several counts of money laundering between them totalling almost £540,000.

“This is yet another great example of the collaboration and partnership working between the Tri Region Investigation Team and local authority Trading Standards Services.”