Fraudsters ‘got off lightly’ - business chief

The founder of Norwich finance firm The Money Centre has said three men jailed for fraud at a former franchise of the business should have received longer sentences.

This week, John Stirzaker, 33, from Aylesbury, Mark Stratford, 32, from Deeds Grove, High Wycombe, and Paul Butcher, 31, also from Deeds Grove, received prison sentences totalling more than six years after pleading guilty to fraud committed while at The Money Machine in High Wycombe.

The company was a franchise of The Money Centre, a business founded in Norwich in 1990 by Mark Alexander.

The offences were confined to the three former employees and the High Wycombe operation, which later closed, and not the main Norwich business.

The offences involved tampering with valuations, enabling clients to put down less deposit while lenders took higher risks, and earned the trio tens of thousands of pounds in commission as well as title deeds to a string of properties.

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In total, lenders issued loans totalling �28m on mortgages submitted with false valuations before the alarm was raised in late 2008.

Following an investigation by The Money Centre, the matter was reported to the police and industry watchdog the Financial Services Authority, and Stratford and Butcher were immediately suspended and arrested.

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Stirzaker, who had previously left the company, was also arrested.

While the crimes were admitted by the three individuals, Mr Alexander said the knock-on effect was that the business had to make 300 staff redundant - including more than 100 in Norwich - as a result of damage to the firm's reputation.

It is unclear whether a decision by Lloyds Banking Group to cease dealing with The Money Centre in 2009 was related to the fraud investigation.

The company remained solvent, with no unpaid debts, and now offers a range of services for landlords, including insurance, mortgages and legal advice through seven joint ventures.

Mr Alexander said: 'I, like many of our former employees who suffered huge financial consequences as a result of this crime, would obviously have liked the sentences to have been longer.

'We have learned that all the assets of the offenders have been confiscated, which I am delighted about.

'We have been pushing for these convictions for two years.'

The discovery came about 'by accident', Mr Alexander said, after a client asked for a refund on a valuation fee.

When the paperwork could not be found, that prompted an investigation from the company's compliance department, which found the problem, which was reported to the two lenders involved, the FSA and the police, and the immediate suspension of the employees involved.

DC Stephanie Burleigh, from the Thames Valley Police's economic crime unit, added: 'This was a lengthy and complex investigation and I am pleased that the seriousness of this fraud has been recognised.

'The fraud resulted in many people being made redundant and in turn I hope lending organisations look to improve their internal systems.'

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