Financial News

  • 30 July 2012, 12:01

Assets Frozen After Sky News Investigation

A company suspected of running a land banking scam has had its assets frozen following a Sky News Investigation.

The High Court order applies to Asset Land Investment Inc (trading as Asset Land Worldwide), Equity Services (London) Limited, and Asset Land Investment PLC.

Three individuals who cannot be named for legal reasons have also had their assets frozen.

The FSA has also obtained court orders to prevent any of the companies or individuals from selling plots of land on particular sites pending further investigation.

The sites are at Stansted, Harrogate, Lutterworth in Leicestershire, Newbury in Berkshire, Liphook in Hampshire and South Godstone in Surrey.

The freezing order is part of action involving West Berkshire Trading Standards and the Metropolitan and Essex police who executed a warrant at an address in Essex and made one arrest.

Sky News began investigating land bank fraud after learning of estimates that investors had lost 250m to numerous land scams since 2006. That is the equivalent of five Kent Securitas robberies and yet no-one has ever been convicted of land bank fraud.

Since our original investigation we have spoken to dozens of investors who claim to have lost large amounts of savings to an alleged scam by Asset Land Investment (ALI).

Steve Smith and Debbie Lowe from Warwickshire invested 20,000 in a plot of land in Newbury.

They say they were told by ALI the area would be rezoned for development and would therefore rise in value.

Steve Smith told Sky News that after making his investment he got the address and postcode on some paperwork and checked it on his satnav.

"I came across a nature reserve. It (the plot) may have been adjacent to the nature reserve, but being a builder I knew we'd never, ever get planning permission on green belt land on a nature reserve or even close to it. So I just felt gutted.

"The money was our life savings. It was for our daughter really, because she was hoping to go to university in a couple of years, and for our pension and it's all been completely wiped away from us.

"Now when I hear the word asset it just makes me really, really angry."

Sky News has also spoken to ALI investors in Germany, France, Israel and the US.

Earlier this year our undercover reporter posed as an investor and secretly filmed Asset Land's Managing director Stuart Cohen trying to sell us land near Harrogate.

He told us: "At the moment it's raw land. To get that to planning permission there are two or three different stages. The next stage it goes to is what we call rezoning. As soon as we get that, and that's one of the early stages, that takes you up to 50% of value. So you're almost doubling your money."

Telesales staff reinforced this message and insisted the land would get planning permission. However we discovered the site in Huby was green belt and was not going to be rezoned.

The small plot we were being sold for 17,000 was part of a site that Asset Land bought for just 115,000 and had already sold over 50 plots on it for 761,000. They could therefore make up to 3m on this one field.

Stuart Cohen was reluctant to answer questions when we approached him earlier this year. A related company Asset Land Investment PLC had its Assets frozen. The director David Banner-Eve was unavailable for comment at his large country home in Essex.

Since land banking emerged in 2006 around 90 companies have been shut down by the Insolvency Service and the Financial Services Authority.

Jonathan Phelan, the FSA Head of Unauthorised Business told Sky News: "We've seen people lose life savings, pensions, not small amounts of money but large amounts of money and things that can cripple them for the rest of their lives."

Yet there never been a criminal conviction against a Land Bank fraudster.

DI Dave Carter from the City Of London Police said: "These are very, very complex investigations involving multiple suspects. Hundreds of victims and thousands of individual transactions, and it's a very complex matter."

City of London Police say the first two cases against alleged land bank fraudsters are due to reach the courts later this year. Last week five people were charged.

Andrew Penhale, Deputy Head of the CPS Central Fraud Division said: "Following an investigation by the City of London Police, we have authorised five people to be charged with conspiracy to defraud, contrary to common law, arising out of the activities of companies Browne Mackenzie, Charles Barkley and Lawrence Taylor."

"The five people are Clive Griston, Matthew Noad, Edward Burchett, Harry Neal and Juell Rahman. This charge relates to an allegation that those charged conspired together to defraud investors by dishonestly representing that various parcels of land at Dumbarton, Cullompton and Towcester were suitable investment opportunities.

"It is alleged that the investors were told that they would make a substantial profit from purchasing land which enjoyed no prospect of being developed."

The FSA said that in all their investigations they have never found anyone who profited from investing in a land bank scheme.

When you consider the number of victims, the amounts they lost and the impact it's had on their lives, it seems astonishing there are still yet to be any criminal convictions for this crime.