Seven men have been jailed for terms of up to 11 years after a trial which laid bare the way in which gangland figures have been drawn to a sophisticated fraud that costs British taxpayers millions of pounds every day. The eight-month court case also highlighted the growing complexity of so-called carousel frauds, and demonstrated the difficulties of bringing the criminals to justice.
Members of the gang sucked ?68m out of the Treasury's coffers by importing and exporting large consignments of mobile phones between companies they controlled, with VAT being reclaimed at each spin of the carousel. On Friday Revenue & Customs admitted that losses to carousel fraud were growing, and City analysts, increasingly alarmed at how the extent of the crime is distorting the country's export figures, said they expected a continuing rise. Revenue & Customs now thinks carousel fraudsters carried out a record ?7.4bn of imports and exports in the first quarter of the year, up from its original estimate of ?5.5bn.
That represents a sixfold increase in a year, and could mean losses to the exchequer of more than ?10bn this year, equivalent to 3p on the basic rate of income tax. Revenue & Customs has 1,000 investigators working on the frauds.
One of the men jailed after a trial last month at Birmingham crown court was Clive Saunders, who ran a legitimate security business in Stoke-on-Trent, but was also a notorious local gang leader living in a ?1m mansion in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Outside the house, built with the proceeds of the fraud, were parked his two Ferraris, one Bentley, three BMWs, and a helicopter with its own helipad. He also owned a house and a boat on the Costa Blanca. The investigation into the frauds Saunders helped mastermind took five years. During that time he was jailed for five years for violent disorder after an underworld feud with a rival gang from Warrington, Cheshire, ended in a shootout at a crowded KFC restaurant.
Euan Stewart, head of criminal operations at Customs' anti-carousel fraud team, said: "We are seeing more and more organised criminals and crime families moving in on carousel frauds, because of the rewards which they know they can reap. I see violence and intimidation more and more, simply because of the huge amounts involved."
Saunders, 44, was jailed for 11 years, the longest sentence imposed in a British carousel case. David Routledge, 62, a bookkeeper from Stoke-on-Trent, was jailed for seven years after being convicted of fraud and money laundering, while Saunders's right-hand man, Craig Jones, 35, was jailed for five years after admitting he cheated the public revenue.
Three other men from Stoke and Colwyn Bay, north Wales, were jailed for between four and five years, while a seventh member of the gang, who cannot be named for legal reasons, got 10 years.
Mr Stewart said: "I am much encouraged that the sentences now being handed down to fraudsters reflect the nature of these organised crime attacks ... [We] are committed to pursuing those involved and to denying them the proceeds of these crimes wherever the money trails take us anywhere in the world."
The latest case is one of five recent trials in which 16 carousel fraudsters have been jailed. Details cannot be reported for legal reasons. About a dozen more cases are due to be brought to trial this year.