by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 03 September 2021
Why now, and why does it matter?
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 20 August 2021
In March, Financial Conduct Authority chief Nikhil Rathi assured MPs that the FCA now has a system in place to ‘escalate’ whistleblower complaints, but statistics since released by the regulator imply a different picture.
The Financial Conduct Authority has faced increased political scrutiny over the past year, for ignoring red flags on the London Capital and Finance scam that ended up costing investors £236m.
Parliamentary inquiries into the scandal sparked a controversial claim from the FCA’s chief Andrew Bailey that he “prioritised” whistleblowing under his tenure.
Bailey’s successor Nikhil Rathi started last year, and also promised to ‘transform; the regulator.
“Certainly, the system has been put in place for [red flag] situations to be logged and to be escalated.” Rathi told MPs in March. “There has been an expansion of the whistleblowing team as well.“
The FCA launched a new ‘In Confidence, with confidence’ whistleblowing drive. This may have been prompted by criticism not only in Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s report on LC&F, but also the recent report by Raj Parker examining the Connaught financial scandal which concluded under Bailey’s tenure and which was similarly critical of the FCA’s handling of whistleblowers.
Given this reckoning and promises of change, why are there few if any signs of change in the watchdog’s own statistics?
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 29 July 2021
Transparency Task Force this week gave evidence to Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee on how our members believe mini-bonds ought to be regulated, pointing out some of the red flags for corruption of financial services.
What is a true mini-bond?
A mini-bond is created when an investor effectively buys some company debt for a set time and potentially makes money off the interest payments. Investors only make returns from mini-bonds if a company is financially healthy.
If the lending is not transparent then it is difficult to tell if the product is really a mini-bond at all, and at that point the process gets murky. In the London Capital & Finance scandal, buyers of mini-bonds were told that their money would be lent to unconnected third parties. Strangers, in other words. This promise turned out to be untrue – much of the money went to businesses directly connected to the financial services firm itself or to fraudsters.
Also this week:
Are litigation lenders exploiting the vulnerable?
The harrowing alleged abuse of ‘peer to peer’ lending by law firms featured in an investigation by myself and journalist Katie Tarrant for Byline Times. I observed court and interviewed a number of anonymous survivors of domestic violence for the piece.
Some vulnerable divorcees have – it appears – been rendered even more vulnerable by taking on what are called litigation loans- a cottage industry of what can be high-interest lending. This grew over the last ten years and is now protruding through the seams of Britain’s cash-strapped justice sector.
The upshot of this is that litigants who cannot get legal aid are often being saddled with debts they cannot afford, and in some cases facing homelessness.
It appears “terribly one-sided and unfair,” TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou observed. “The overall impression I have, having looked at some of the evidence is that this is a matter of national importance because there is good reason to believe the issue is widespread.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 17 July 2021
TTF’s founder this month alleged to British lawmakers that a “colossal amount of carnage is being cause by a relatively small number of criminally-minded individuals” in the UK. Repeat scammers, who use a technique called ‘phoenixing’ to evade capture:
“As soon as they start to feel the temperature rise around them they close down shop and reappear somewhere else” Andy Agathangelou testified. “They have in my opinion been running rings around the regulators and enforcement agencies. … One of the most powerful weapons they have is this ability to dissolve their organisation and pop up somewhere else.”
The term ‘phoenixing’ for this dodge-game is very apt, indicating a mythical bird rising again from the ashes. TTF members who are scam victims have been grappling with the reality of rogue directors evading scrutiny over the years, and have given evidence to the Government on the same.
So why is the Government only now getting a grip on ‘phoenixing’ – a technique believed to have been used by white collar crime for decades?
In a word: Covid. MPs reported last month that up to £30 billion in fraud or error over the past year was eating into the government’s own coronavirus support scheme. A.k.a. our taxes, hitting Treasury coffers and impacting on public spending.
This experience may have drawn the Treasury’s attention to the fact that anyone – including them – can fall victim to a crime. And how motivating it can be to lose a few £billion:
“New powers to tackle unfit directors of dissolved companies” announced the Government in May: “The Insolvency Service will be given powers to investigate directors of companies that have been dissolved, closing a legal loophole and acting as a strong deterrent against the misuse of the dissolution process.”
This is being presented as a crack-down on phoenixing, in other words.
Controversially, though, lawmakers have been planning to limit action against phoenixing to a period of three years. This limitation on the new powers is a measure that TTF members – many of them targeted by investment scammers – strongly oppose.
As Agathangelou puts it: “Three years is a blink of an eye in this context. … If the objective is to try to clean up our country, then make the timeframe as long as you can.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 04 July 2021
Distressed borrowers have joined with the man who elevated Operation Hornet, to accuse the National Crime Agency of moving its goal-posts to avoid investigating longstanding claims of ‘industrial-scale’ forgery.
This comes in spite of the fact that MPs have repeatedly asked the NCA to ‘investigate as appropriate’ the claims of fraud and use of invalid documentation.
The Agency is currently at loggerheads with complainants alleging signature forgery or invalid documentation by staff in a range of institutions. These include historic claims against staff in two major banks (RBS and HBOS/Lloyds). The complainants believe the NCA has changed the goal of their assessment to a more serious but non-existent charge, away from what claimants are alleging:
“The serious charge, which the NCA is refusing to investigate, is signature forgery and the use of deliberately invalid documentation, including in court”, the Banking Action Network alleges, and adds: “Following a meeting between the Thames Valley Police & Crime Commissioner, the Bank Signature Forgeries Campaign (BSFC) and Mr Biggar [of the NECC] in March, the former [Mr Anthony Stansfeld] concluded that the NCA and NECC have no intention of investigating* the matter further.”
*Interestingly, the use of the word ‘investigating’ here was rejected by the NCA, when TTF Blog approached them this week with these allegations. The NCA, for its side, has never opened an investigation but is instead still “assessing” the claims in its National Economic Crime Centre.
William May of the Banking Action Network is a fraud claimant turned campaigner, currently facing possession proceedings. May told TTF Blog that, in his view this “continues to be disgusting, totally biased policing.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 16 June 2021
Former Court of Appeal judge Dame Elizabeth Gloster yesterday told MPs that “there has to be a cultural change” at the UK’s City regulator the Financial Conduct Authority.
Bearing witness on the same panel, TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou told Parliament that we see a worsening trajectory of financial crime and regulatory failure in the UK. You can watch the evidence session on Parliament TV.
SFO chief suspects criminal profits
Meanwhile, the UK’s chief fraud prosecutor is calling for new tools to prevent UK companies ‘promoting and profiting’ from crime, as the Government’s legal experts consult on options for changing the law.
In a post-Covid and post-Brexit economy, will the Government eschew the ruthless attempts it made to claw Britain back from the financial crash of 2008? A key priority for mortgage prisoners’ campaigner Rachael Neale is ‘homelessness prevention schemes for all’.
When Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley were hit by the financial crash of ’08, their mortgage books passed to the Treasury. A BBC Panorama investigation excoriated what happened next (watch), including the Government’s astonishing sale, in 2016, of 270,000 former Northern Rock mortgages to ‘vulture fund’ Cerberus for £13 billion.
“The Treasury takes a view that whatever money it puts into the system to intervene in the marketplace, it wants back as quickly as it can,” observed Kevin Hollinrake the Conservative Chair of the APPG on Fair Business Banking, at a TTF Symposium last week. “I think that’s pretty short term thinking. The reason we’re talking about some of the SME abuses, and mortgage prisoners’ problems, 14 years later, is an example of that.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 18 May 2021
When fraudsters nabbed £11M in currency transfers three years ago, Premier FX customers were plunged into a ‘black hole’, and they have questions for the receiving bank.
Pauline Creasey lost almost half a £million – in life savings – when Premier FX collapsed years ago. She now raises stark issues of whether the bank followed its own industry’s guidance against ‘abnormal’ transactions.
‘We’ve said all this to Barclays, : “Were you not concerned that a customer who had been moving between £1000 and £10,000 pounds was suddenly sending hundreds of thousands of pounds?”’ she asked, at a Symposium TTF ran last week.
Some Premier FX customers were destituted by the fraud. By contrast, Barclays’ CEO Jes Staley took home a £4m bonus during the Covid 19 pandemic. His bank reported a surplus liquidity equivalent to £107 billion in the first quarter of this year.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 04 May 2021
MPs from across parties have joined our calls for a full investigation of the Blackmore Bond scandal, after the Telegraph revealed there were 71 fraud allegations to police, about the since-collapsed £47M minibond scheme. And that the police notified the Financial Conduct Authority a whopping 45 times – but it appears the regulator completely failed to act.
The “Boiler Room” next door
TTF member Paul Carlier has helped to draw journalists’ and MPs’ attention to this case. Next door to his office in 2017 was unregulated introducer firm Amyma. It had sounded to Carlier like they were cold-calling people, seemingly coaching them to invest in Blackmore Bond.
The legacy of the credit crunch - debt as a weapon
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 20 April 2021
As the Covid-19 crisis continues to rack up the world’s debt month on month, it may surprise you how many British borrowers are grappling with loans that are more than a decade old.
Scandals that laced the U.K.’s ‘economic recovery’ after the crash of ’08, have still not been addressed. Victims are still living with the impact of homelessness, family breakdown, and most harrowingly, an unquantified number of suicides.
The Royal Bank of Scotland’s GRG scandal and the plight of mortgage prisoners epitomise this toxic legacy of the crash in the U.K. – when banks and private equity funds turned on borrowers. I cover this in depth on the blog today.
We again write to Boris Johnson
Founder Andy Agathangelou has again written to the Prime Minister about the paper-trails revealed by participants at a Symposium we ran last week.
He brings these questions to the PM’s attention:
●Are there untenable conflicts of interest at play between the Financial Conduct Authority and The Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest, HSBC and Barclays?
●Did the Governor of the Bank of England lie to the Treasury Select Committee when he was the Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority?
●How many members of the public have committed suicide following a problem with The Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest, HSBC, Barclays or any associated bank? And why did they kill themselves?
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 14 April 2021
Transparency Task Force has written again to the Prime Minister to raise deeply concerning testimony on financial scandals aired at a Symposium this month. This time, on Interest Rates Hedging Products or ‘swaps’ that were sold with gusto to small-to-medium-sized enterprises after the credit crunch of ’08.
It is exhausting for alleged victims who have been raising the scandal for years. Financial adviser Steve Middleton explained to the audience at our April 1st event: “I’ve been saying that this issue of hidden margin credit is the biggest financial fraud in recent history, since 2013. Here i am in 2021 still trying to expose what really happened to people who bought these swap products and how many of them lost their businesses and some of them even their lives because of risk they were not made aware of.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 30 March 2021
Tax authorities ought to use their ‘discretion’ to stop hounding victims of pension liberation scams, argue MPs, in a landmark report published Sunday. If they cannot do so within the ambit of the Law, then the Government should look at changing it.
What is a pension liberation scam?
Ordinarily, you or your employer pay in a fixed amount into your pension pot year-on-year, accruing gradually into a large pot of money to assist you in your old age. If you try to access your pension pot early, before retirement age, you are hit with heavy tax penalties and charges.
However, pension “liberation” fraudsters have been a festering sore on the financial services industry for years, using false claims to bait victims to pass their pension pot over to them.
The victims then face a nightmare scenario of being pursued for tax on allegedly defrauded money. In its revealing new report, the Work and Pensons Committee covers these tax bills of 40%+ on victims of financial crime:
“HMRC has been described as “unrelenting and uncompromising” in the pursuit of these charges. While the position taken by HMRC is legally correct, it has often lacked empathy or understanding of the impact that its demands have on victims”
This is why MPs are advocating for change. The victim-impact of these crimes is sadly nothing new. However, the landscape has changed because ‘pension freedom’ reforms enacted by the Government in 2015 intended to give people more control over what they did with their pension money. Counter-intuitively, these new ‘freedoms’ offered criminals a potentially convincing cover story for seizing hard-earned pension pots. They could claim that they were offering their victims the “freedom” to invest their savings.
Fraudsters have also benefitted by publishing false and misleading adverts online, as tech giants are doing almost nothing to stamp out false claims.
The many facets of this crime scene were explored in the landmark report on Pension Scams released on Sunday. The report sprang from the Work and Pensions Committee’s Pension Scams inquiry, a probe that TTF campaigned for.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 22 March 2021
TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou told the PM that “Paul Carlier, the whistleblower featured extensively in last Saturday’s Telegraph gave a forensic and relentless exposé of not just the Blackmore Bond scandal, but also several other incidents, all backed up by hard Email-trail evidence that was displayed for all to see”.
Agathangelou is concerned that this is part of a pattern: “Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s scathing report into the FCA’s handling of LC&F, Raj Parker’s report on Connaught Income Series 1, the Telegraph’s revelations about Blackmore Bond, MPs stating “the FCA is not fit for purpose,” reports of system-wide failure from Peers and even the FCA itself feeling the need to apologise for its own poor performance.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 15 March 2021
As embarrassment builds for the Financial Conduct Authority over the Blackmore Bond minibond scandal, Transparency Task Force will host a Symposium on the issue this week.
Investors lost £47m collectively when Blackmore Bond collapsed in 2020. Paul Carlier, one of the witnesses to the scheme’s sales tactics, had written to the FCA’s whistleblowing team about it three years earlier. It appears from a chain of emails that – despite Mark Steward, head of Enforcement, having indicated that they were ‘making enquiries’ – nothing was done to investigate.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Fairer Financial Services – which TTF provides the secretariat to – is calling for an inquiry into the fiasco, following on from Dame Gloster’s damning report on the London Capital & Finance scandal, another mini-bonds scheme.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 08 March 2021
Pensions Ombudsman Anthony Arter will speak alongside scam victims and other TTF members this evening. We will discuss how to protect British savers from financial crime and the thorny issue of how to seek redress.
The free to attend TTF Symposium will feature Directors of the Pension Protection Fund. They will discusss the Fraud Compensation Fund that they run; what it can do after occupational pension schemes are defrauded, and where their hands are currently tied.
Responding to TTF Blog
This event follows questions from TTF Blog last year, when we asked whether the Fraud Compensation Fund could support more victims?
Transparency Task Force recently submitted our proposals to MPs for improving Financial Services in the UK.
Meanwhile, the unaccountable power of UK financial watchdogs was condemned last week in the House of Lords, by peers across parties. Lord Holmes – who has previously called for small business lending over £25,000 to be regulated – said of the Lords’ debates last week that they “seek to answer a straightforward question: who watches the financial watchdogs?”
Baroness Kramer – who is among peers advocating for a ‘Duty of Care’ in financial services – identified the current Financial Services Bill as a ‘new low’ for lawmakers, with “policy set in regulators’ rules with no meaningful accountability to Parliament.” The Bill is weak, she explained. It “provides, in essence, just for a bit more explanation by the regulator”.
The case for a Supervisory Council similar to Australia’s
TTF is pushing for a Financial Services Supervisory Council to be created for the UK. It would be similar to Australia’s planned super-regulator – which has sprung from their Royal Commission inquiry into financial scandals.
However, we argue that measures in the UK should go even further than in Australia.
Police Crime Commissioner Anthony Stansfeld gave a swan song at a Transparency Task Force Symposium last week (watch). He is retiring in three months’ time.
Standing up for whistleblowers
Victims of the HBOS Reading fraud, who were present, felt that they ‘cannot afford’ to lose Stansfeld’s voice. He was often in the course of his career the only person levelling with bank chairmen and Treasury ministers, brandishing whistleblower Sally Masterton’s report on the scandal (part 1, part 2).
Stansfeld recalled how the bank’s internal audit and risk had authorised Masterton’s report, before ‘promptly sacking’ her when they realised what she had uncovered.
Senior judge disputes Governor's complaint to Inquiry
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 15 February 2021
Dame Elizabeth Gloster has written to MPs disputing a complaint by the Bank of England’s Governor to an MPs’ inquiry on the London Capital & Finance (LCF) minibonds scandal. The row between the Dame and the Governor centres on Mr Bailey’s reported objection to being singled-out in Dame Gloster’s damning investigation of the scandal.
LCF is a toxic case in part because it impacted such vulnerable consumers; many reportedly believed they were putting their savings into ISAs. LCF was actually dealing in unregulated, high risk mini-bonds. Consumers lost more than £200M in savings when it collapsed in 2019.
Mr Bailey claimed to MPs on Monday that he was ‘angry’ with how he had been portrayed in Dame Gloster’s report; that he had never objected to taking ‘responsibility’, as CEO, for the FCA’s failure of LCF’s consumers. However, by Tuesday the Dame’s disclosure of his legal representations showed exactly why she disagrees with him.
Social media's pandemic: Disinformation & Fraud
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 08 February 2021
British politicians will be exercised, post-pandemic, with mapping out a projected regulation of the internet called the Online Harms Bill – likely to expand Ofcom’s role. Will this include ‘financial harms’ to consumers?
Stephen Timms MP, who chairs the Pension Scams Inquiry, raised this question directly to PM Boris Johnson last week: “It has been estimated that 40,000 people were scammed out of their pensions in the five years after the pension freedoms took effect in 2015″ he said. “Attractive deals on Google or Facebook turn out all too often to be a fraud. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the planned online harms Bill tackles online financial harms, to address this very serious problem?”
Bailey to be grilled by MPs on failure to protect mini-bond consumers
Today Treasury Committee MPs will grill Andew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, on his former role leading the Financial Conduct Authority. MPs’ questions will be focused on the damning report by Dame Elizabeth Gloster, on the FCA’s shocking failure to clamp down on rogue firm London Capital & Finance before it cost savers – collectively – hundreds of £millions.
Duty of Care mooted amid condemnation of watchdogs
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 01 February 2021
Baroness Kramer and Lord Sharkey suggest amending the draft law to say that the regulator “must make rules in accordance with section 137CA (FCA general rules: duty of care) of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000” if enacted, within six months. Such an amendment “would impose on financial services providers a general duty of care to their clients.”
That debate will be important, because the watchdog appears to have dragged its feet on Duty of Care before – it has announced consultations on it in recent years, but has not actually concluded them. It is also under deep scrutiny from a litany of victims, and many of their MPs, on its failure to “effectively supervise and regulate” to protect the public and even vulnerable people. Lawyers for LCF victims recently told a court how even people on state benefits were successfully hooked into the scam via misleading promotions, while the regulator failed to act.
Will a new inquiry bolster campaigns to address Economic Crime in the UK?
In 2015, the Conservative Party manifesto stated that it would make it a crime for companies to fail to put in place measures to stop economic crime. Six years on, and the government’s Law Commission is projected to be reviewing this topic all year. Secret documents leaked to journalists in 2020 implied that there are severe consequences to dropping the ball: in one intelligence assessment, analysts from the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ‘described the U.K. as a “higher risk” country for money laundering, on a par with Cyprus’.
Scandals of inequity
Bob Blackman MP chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pension Scams, which TTF set up and helps to run. He spearheaded a debate last week on the decades-long Equitable Life scandal, which I covered on this blog last week. In Blackman’s view, the Equitable Life case is ‘absolutely unique ‘: “Back in the 1980s, Equitable Life started what can only be described as a Ponzi scheme. I distance the current Equitable Life board from what was going on in the 1980s, but the company then deliberately set out to create a scheme whereby it promised bonuses that could not be achieved and could not be sustained in the long term.”
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 18 January 2021
It stems from the day the world’s oldest mutual insurer revealed a black hole in its accounts, as a result of which, more than a million ordinary folk lost £4billion in savings. According to victims’ group campaigners 95% of them have since got back only 22% of the money they lost. That campaign for redress again ramped up in December, with calls backed by MPs for a further £2.6 billion in compensation.
In 2008, MPs in Westminster’s Public Administration Committee penned a paper about the Equitable Life scandal titled ‘Justice Delayed’. They observed at the time that many of the victims “are no longer alive, and will be unable to benefit personally from any compensation. We share both a deep sense of frustration and continuing outrage that the situation has remained unresolved for so long.”
Gallingly, that is now more than twelve years ago. The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s report on the scandal in 2008 concluded that there had been ‘a decade of regulatory failure’ and that the members of Equitable Life were seriously let down by the Financial Services Authority and Government bodies. The Government then agreed to compensate victims. Subjects covered by MPs at the time included ‘Lessons for the Future’ and ‘Who watches the watchmen’? Those conclusions bear revisiting today.
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 12 January 2021
Fraudsters are exploiting the tools of unregulated online advertising in lockdown, prompting a call for increased powers to tackle the scourge. A City of London police commander last week explained to MPs why in his view, the police can’t simply ‘arrest ourselves out of’ the UK’s most common crime. It happens so often, and is difficult to trace: “Traditionally there has been an emphasis on reducing criminals,” said Commander Clinton Blackburn of City of London Police. “Preventing people from becoming a victim in the first place is an absolutely vital part of addressing fraud.”
822,000 reports of fraud
Commander Blackburn made the remarks at the latest hearing of the Pension Scams inquiry, a probe that Transparency Task Force campaigned for. You can see a full transcript of the session here and catch up with victims’ testimony here. Last week’s session heard from police and regulators. Blackburn set out that there were around 822,000 reports of fraud in the last financial year in the UK, including ‘nearly 19,000 investment frauds reported to Action Fraud’ in 2020: “We are talking about huge volumes here. Policing has limited resources and competing demands and, sadly, we have to make some very difficult decisions as a result. I do not believe this is an area of crime where we can arrest ourselves out of this offence type.”
As 2020 neared its close, police for Interpol arrested ferrari-driving millionaire Anthony Armstrong-Emery in the United Arab Emirates. His purported Brazilian social housing scheme, EcoHouse, cost most investors more than £20,000 each in savings. Investors first started raising concerns around 2013.
EcoHouse was promoted by British solicitors (one of them since struck-off) and has caused losses around the world. Yesterday, one of the victims of the scam told TTF that he has just surveyed the experiences of more than 60 others regarding the Met Police’s handling of their cases. They have heard so little positive news that they feel as if ‘the case investigation & prosecution has inexplicably disappeared, like a ship in the Bermuda Triangle’. Tantalising evidence on where victims’ money went has dangled just out of reach since 2017, apparently in the hands of the Met Police, with victims now beyond desperate for disclosure.
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 21 December 2020
Reports on regulatory failure in the Connaught and London Capital & Finance scandals – which collectively lost consumers hundreds of £millions in hard-earned savings – were published last week with damning effect on the UK’s leading City watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority. Transparency Task Force is brainstorming for a White Paper on how the FCA could be fixed, as former watchdog chiefs face press ridicule for both ignoring tip-offs on scandals and trying to use ‘Maxwellisation’ – legal attempts to challenge what is said about them – to mute personal criticism after the fact.
‘Huge learning opportunity’ in the legacy of Australia’s Royal Commission
Given the persistent furore around financial regulation in the UK, TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou had a ‘spookily timed conversation’ last week with Dr Andy Schmulow, an Australian expert in the ‘twin peaks’ model of financial services regulation – where financial stability is regulated separately to the City.
Agathangelou felt after the conversation as if a flashlight had been handed to him in the dark: “I have had hundreds of great conversations with people this year, and I think that the conversation we just had is right up there as one of the most significant of all of them.” He explained, pointing up that “Australia has gone through a very very interesting time recently and we are absolutely convinced that there is a huge learning opportunity.”
Blistering victim testimony on the impact of investment fraud and regulatory failure in the UK, was last week given to MPs on Parliament’s Pension Scams Inquiry, a probe TTF campaigned for. You can watch the session here.
Ark Scheme victim Susan Flood, who together with her partner was scammed of approximately £250,000, told MPs that ‘systemic failures’ in the UK are “top-down from the majority of the regulatory bodies.” She said this applies to “HMRC, Companies House, FCA, PRA, TPR and SFO – that includes Action Fraud. … What happened to my partner and I pretty much ruined our family life and resulted in financial harm to us all. We’re still fighting for the return of our savings ten years on.”
MPs heard that despite being advised by regulated experts, and employing lawyers in response to red flags just weeks after the transfer, Flood and her partner have yet to find any redress: instead, they have a monstrous tax bill on the ‘proceeds of crime’. She told MPs: “We were lied to throughout the process. … We found ourselves in an Ark scheme, which meant that our life savings were actually put into a fraudulent land valuation and other unregulated investments. We [had] believed we were getting a low risk pension scheme.”
HMRC under pressure
Flood and her partner are facing 55% unauthorised charges from HMRC on the approximate £250,000 scammed from them – with the interest going up on that amount over the years.
Being hounded for tax on their losses is a common, harrowing experience for scam victims. The second witness at last week’s session was Dennis Waite, who lost, in a different HMRC-registered scheme, a £108,000 Royal Mail pension he had spent 21 years accruing. He told MPs that he is also facing a tax bill – of 40%- on the proceeds of that crime.
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 30 November 2020
One of the devastating features of investment scams is that they tend to appeal to their victims’ social conscience.
“They’ll have some renewable energy plant in some third world country that will benefit from your investment,” explained pensions expert Lesley Carline, at a TTF Symposium last week.
Scammers often speak to victims like a friend, in a manner that true professionals cannot emulate. Carline compares their bluster to that of Donald Trump: “When pensions people are talking to members about their retirement options we use very complicated words and we are hamstrung by regulation about what we can and can’t say. If you listen to Donald Trump, he used soundbites, he says what you want to hear, he used short sentences and simple words. You may think the guy’s a plonker but he’s very effective. So is your scammer. They research you, they’re friendly, they’re approachable, it always seems to be quite timely when they contact you.”
“Ecohouse” transparency gap?
As TTF’s head of investigative journalism I took a call last week from an investor who was motivated by this kind of ‘social good’ messaging. He’d put savings into a “social housing scheme supposedly affiliated with the Brazilian Government”
It was called Ecohouse, a scheme that was suspended six years ago, and has since been deemed a fraud by Brazilian authorities.
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 23 November 2020
In the countries worst hit by the global pandemic, governments will have to grapple with the impact of Covid 19 pandemic on people’s jobs and security.
The U.S. today hit a one-day record of more than 192,000 Covid cases and the Sun recently reported that ‘TENS of millions of Americans will lose their unemployment benefits next month when Cares Act provisions expire, – unless lawmakers can agree on another coronavirus relief package.’
On Wednesday, Professor Steve Keen, the author of Debunking Economics, will be discussing this crisis with TTF members. Keen sees that private debt and unemployment have a correlation so ‘staggering’ that when you put it on a graph it looks like a Rorschach Blot. This has been ignored for far too long.
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 16 November 2020
The overwhelming need for change in financial services is not discussed as often as it ought to be. Since the year 2000, the U.S. financial services industry has paid out $325,206,110,617 in fines for legal violations. In the field of climate breakdown the situation looks, if anything, even worse as NGOs report big banks’ support for the fossil fuel industry has increased every year since the Paris Agreement was signed, with $2.7 trillion in investment in fossil fuels from some of the world’s biggest banks since 2016.
That mismatch between profit, value and indeed survival is globally evident. Despite this, it can still be a lonely task for financial services leaders to effect change for the better.
Transparency Task Force is publishing a series of video interviews with ethical financial services leaders – thankfully, a growing group of influential people. I’m featuring a couple of them here, as TTF is building an international league for ethical business leaders in the financial services space.
UK Financial Ombudsman - complainants are waiting 'too long'
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 09 November 2020
The UK’s financial ombudsman Caroline Wyman will take questions from MPs this afternoon, after the FOS’s annual report admitted that ‘at the end of the [financial] year, many people were still waiting too long for our help’, and “levels of satisfaction with our service, which are influenced by waiting times, have and will continue to come under pressure.”
The Ombudsman service does not appear to regularly report on its case-handling backlog, although it frequently states its target to handle all cases within eight weeks
By Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 02 November 2020
We will be running a ‘no-holds-barred’ Symposium on Wednesday evening on what high profile critics see as the many failings and flaws within the UK’s financial services regulatory framework.
Meanwhile the new chief of the Financial Conduct Authority, Nikhil Rathi, is appearing in front of MPs for the first time since he began his tenure at the watchdog. On Wednesday afternoon he will be accompanied in front of the Treasury Committee by Charles Randell, who chairs the FCA.
Questions for FCA chiefs from victim of fund collapse
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 26 October 2020
Last February a coalition of lawmakers in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking gave their support to a group of people in the UK alleging that high street banks had forged customer signatures on documents.
The APPG observed at the time that: ‘In the USA, all 50 State Attorney Generals have already investigated the industrial-scale forgery of bank signatures on court documents in cases against customers.
‘The investigation resulted in penalty payments by US banks of $25 billion and the review of 4 million court cases by banks against customers. … In Australia, the Royal Commission documented evidence of signature forgery at Commonwealth Financial Planning, ANZ Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Bendigo Bank. The interim report also documented practices at the NAB, whereby individuals would sign as a witness to a client’s signature without having actually seen the client sign.’
‘We hope that with the Bank Signature Forgery Campaign, a similar body of evidence can be produced in the UK.’
Since then, the Campaign has provided the chief of the National Crime Agency, Lynne Owens, with more than 360 crime reports and 19 files of documents.
Whistleblowers speak out in new documentary short
Some key allegations brought to the campaign have been neatly summarised in a short film presented by Nicholas Wilson, a former banking whistleblower who is distributing the video online. His film features, among other figures, Steve Middleton a consultant who has worked with banking whistleblowers, alleging some of them were taught to forge signatures during their training: “They were taught it was the right thing to do, that it was in the customers’ interests…” he says.
Another key allegation was previously covered by investigative journalist Ian Fraser in his book Shredded: Inside RBS — the ‘common joke’ at Broadland Business Park that “all the best business was done at the photocopier”. The whistleblower Mark Wright – interviewed by the BBC here – goes on to tell Wilson that he alerted Andrew Bailey, then head of the FCA, to the name of an alleged trainer in signature forgeries.
The renewed focus on this subject is helping to bolster calls for a real inquiry on the impact of alleged financial services misconduct in the UK, perhaps akin to Australia’s Royal Commission. There is an air of Groundhog Day to this coverage, however, because we heard the same united call from campaigners last February. Investigations by law enforcement are by their nature secretive, and they have to be.
Mel Stride urging an update from Enforcement Agencies
Complainants’ frustration not to see enforcement action on bank signature forgery claims – or at the very least a public reckoning brought by politicians – is understandable. This is particularly in light of Andy Verity’s recent BBC report – in September – that no complainants had yet been contacted by the National Crime Agency. What is going on? The House of Commons’ Treasury Committee of MPs, chaired by Mel Stride, has been pushing for an update.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 19 October 2020
In the United States, a law to register financial investments came into force after the Wall Street Crash, with the Securities Act of 1933. The same never happened in the UK. Is it time for a change?
When Andy Agathangelou gave evidence to MPs’ inquiry on pension scams, the Work and Pensions Select Committee asked witnesses to write to them with any further thoughts on regulation. One idea that was discussed in evidence was to use a system of blacklists or whitelists to identify unregulated products. We are writing to the Committee on this, following the TTF’s ‘Joint Task Force’ proposal which is now published on the Committee’s website.
How does an S.E.C. type model of financial accountability work for the United States? Data on the US Violation Tracker project shows that recidivism, where financial misconduct repeats again and again, is a multi-$billion phenomenon there. But from the perspective of Mark Taber and other financial experts grappling with our system of regulation, the US system of knowledge-gathering, at least when it comes to a formal register of financial investment promotions, is many steps ahead of the UK and can disincentivise crooks.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 12 October 2020
Lawmakers are under pressure to close a shocking loophole that prevents the pensions industry from blocking the theft of pensions by transfer fraudsters. Recent research by Aviva indicates that, while this makes up only about 5% of reported frauds that target savers, the average sum lost to a transfer fraud is a devastating £70,000.
Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, spoke up in a reading of the Pensions Bill last Wednesday, recounting evidence that he received in the pension scams inquiry, which Transparency Task Force helped to bring about in our campaign earlier this year.
Timms said: “We heard this morning from scheme trustees not only that they had an obligation to transfer even if they knew perfectly well that the destination was a scam but that if they did not do it quickly enough they would be fined for not getting a move on”
Timms said that the pensions ombudsman had tried to protect consumers in 2015, when it ‘allowed trustees to decline a transfer request when there were concerns about a scam‘ but perversely, this due diligence was then apparently strait-jacketed under the law: “The Hughes v. Royal Londoncourt case in 2016 overturned that determination. That must be changed … It is important that that change is made.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 05 October 2020
Violation Tracker (VT) is a powerful tool in the United States to keep tabs on all fines across all industries. Transparency Task Force is launching a campaign to bring it to the United Kingdom.
Using the existing database, for the United States, you can see, for example:
- that fines for financial offenses since the year 2000 have totalled $305,457,241,721, and that JP Morgan Chase tops that list.
- that there have been just over $96billion of fines in the United States for environmental offenses largely to oil companies, with BP, British Petroleum, having paid-out the most, $27,827,796,980 covering 142 separate violations over the last twenty years.
- that Wells Fargo topped VT’s bill in fines for ‘fraud’ due to $3billion levied on the bank in a single penalty this year.
- that Facebook tops VT’s bill for consumer-protection-related offenses paying $5,002,450,000 in fines for just two offenses.
TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou told Reaction‘s Maggie Pagano last week: “We need properly functioning and transparent markets … to ensure that capitalism is doing what it is designed to do, and [is not] distorted by the bad behaviour of big corporations.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 29 September 2020
Transparency Task Force’s founder, Andy Agathangelou, has written to Boris Johnson to emphasise the need for a ‘tax amnesty’ for fraud victims unfairly hounded by HMRC for tax on pilfered pensions, writing of ‘the emotional and financial shock that endures, without reprieve, when a member of the public is defrauded of their pension savings’.
The TTF letter follows a promising meeting last Friday between the Prime Minister, Andy Agathangelou, pension scam victim David Burgess and his wife Lana. Mr Burgess is a constituent of Mr Johnson’s in Uxbridge. Several years ago he lost a devastating £38,000 of savings in an HMRC-registered Ark pension scheme, since deemed by a High Court judge to be a ‘fraud on the trustee’s powers’.
A key reason Mr Burgess had trusted the Ark scheme was ‘because it was registered with HMRC and the Pensions Regulator’. In 2015, Mr Johnson – as Mr Burgess’s MP – had promised to contact Linn Homer, then-head of HMRC, to raise his case. However, David and his wife Lana heard nothing back from Mr Johnson at the time and remained in suspense. Hopefully, this new engagement indicates some willingness to grasp the nettle?
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 21 September 2020
Parliamentarians would like to change the law to help protect £trillions of pension pot savings from being stolen or squandered in the UK. What needs to happen?
The Pensions Bill is progressing through Parliament and at least 31 MPs have expressed an interest in the All-Party Group on pension scams, which we helped set up at the beginning of the summer. So far, two ‘Wild West’ arenas appear to be drawing interest:
- Online spaces, which appear to be a free-for-all for fraudsters to advertise in.
- International activity – with scammers who operate across jurisdictions, but face consequences in none of them.
TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou told MPs’ Inquiry on Pension Scams last Wednesday: “We see a general lack of international collaboration … we are quite concerned that there is a very problematic grey area … when somebody carries out a transfer where part of the process involves an unregulated entity operating outside the UK.
“We think there is a huge breach going on that needs to be looked at and we think that many people have been told by the regulators that the regulators cannot help because it is outside their jurisdiction. We believe the regulators—at least in some cases, possibly many cases—are wrong.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 14 September 2020
“I have long been concerned about the approaches of offshore advisers and I believe that this should be the particular focus …” commented Bob Blackman last week, as he was appointed to chair our All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pension Scams. Rob Roberts, Lord Kirkhope and Nick Smith will vice-chair, supported by a voluntary Secretariat – get in touch if you’d like to help.
This week, TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou is looking forward to delivering our evidence to MPs’ newly-opened Pension Scams Inquiry – which we campaigned for – he’ll be on Parliament TV at 9am this Wednesday.
Tip of an iceberg
The inquiry on pension scams chaired by Stephen Timms – which will focus on ‘pension freedoms’ legislation – can only skim the surface of the UK’s vulnerability to fraud more widely. Although bank branch staff stopped £19m cons in the first half of 2020, this category of crime is booming. Action Fraud’s interactive dashboard shows that alleged fraud victims’ reported losses in July edged towards half a £billion — £418.6M in that month alone from 37,414 incidents, an approximate tripling on previous rates.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 07 September 2020
TTF’s founder Andy Agathangelou and I have completed TTF’s sixth interview documenting the impact of pension scams, on the cusp of a Parliamentary inquiry that TTF called for. The interviewee, who was scammed of a pension worth at least £40,000, is working all-hours to try to recoup his savings. He believes he has strong evidence on the group that scammed him and that they are still operating: “Why aren’t they arrested now? … Why can’t something be done about these people? I do a 14-hour shift, every day, and then I come back here and do they wonder why I’ve got the hump. … I’ve got no life, as a working person; I’d love to do a 9-to-5 and I can’t.”
MPs’ preferred deadline is this Wednesday for submitting your own evidence to the inquiry. Beyond this, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pension Scams also has its inaugural meeting this week. The members are: Jonathan Reynolds the Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions; Bob Blackman – Conservative MP for Harrow East; Jack Dromey Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington; Harriet Baldwin Conservative MP for West Worcestershire; Nick Smith Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent; Yvonne Fovargue Labour MP for Makerfield; Christina Rees Labour MP for Neith; Henry Smith Conservative MP for Crawley; Lord Balfe Conservative peer; Baroness Crawley, Labour peer; Baroness Bowles Lib Dem peer and Lord Harris, Labour peer.
If you would like to get involved in supporting this, please get in touch.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 01 September 2020
The independent investigator of complaints against city watchdogs, Antony Townsend, has spoken out against regulators’ plan to impose a £10,000 ceiling on compensation if they caused financial loss. Transparency Task Force is hosting a special Symposium tomorrow to discuss the controversy, to help inform our reply to the FCA’s truncated 8-week consultation.
The FCA’s plan states that in ‘exceptional circumstances’ more than £10,000 may be awarded when they have caused financial loss. However, those circumstances are not defined. In his considered response, Mr Townsend says that, in his opinion, the compensation cap is not honouring the spirit of the ‘statutory immunity’ from being sued that has long been afforded to Regulators by Parliament.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 24 August 2020
The Complaints Commissioner has just critiqued City watchdogs for running a truncated eight-week consultation that caps payments for financial loss at £10,000 where regulators’ failings were the ‘sole or primary cause’ of the loss.
Anthony Townsend, the Complaints Commissioner, said the proposals “represent an explicit fettering of compensation for direct financial loss.”
Andy Agathangelou, Transparency Task Force Founder, has organised a special Symposium on this issue on 2nd September, prior to the consultation deadline on September 14th. He says: “This issue is of great concern to TTF because we want to do all we can to help protect consumers’ interests, hence our symposium and of course we’ll also be responding to the consultation itself.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 17 August 2020
This week we are asking we have found no instances of the Pension Protection Fund’s Fraud Compensation Fund being used to support scam victims?
Some are hoping that a High Court case, The Board of the Pensions Protection Fund and Dalriada Trustees, could break the deadlock.
In other news, The Financial Conduct Authority, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Bank of England are currently consulting on ‘Complaints Against the Regulators’. The FCA is proposing to cap compensation for ‘very high level of distress’ caused by ‘a major failure of our processes’ at £1000; while refusing to interview complainants or witnesses. Get your views in.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 10 August 2020
Pension scammers can strip enormous sums of money from savers, thanks in part to very low public awareness of the problem. We believe victims’ stories need to be heard. With this in mind Transparency Task Force is busy interviewing Pension Scam victims to inform MPs’ new Inquiry on Pension Scams. Our deadline is rushing up: September 9th.
If you have been pension-scammed or know somebody who has, this is exactly who we need to hear from the most. TTF can, if you wish compile video interviews – similar to my chat with TTF’s founder, Andy Agathangelou, on TTF TV, to help you to address MPs directly with your concerns.
We also value the input of unnamed, anonymous sources to this investigation. We have pension scam victims on our Advisory Board, we know trust is paramount and we keep confidential sources private.
You can also submit evidence directly to MPs, which we also encourage.
by Alex Varley-Winter, TTF’s Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting, 03 August 2020
Last week brought the very welcome news that MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee are heeding TTF’s call to probe pension scams. They want to hear from victims in particular — pension scam victims in 2018 reported losing £82,000 on average, which has a devastating impact. TTF’s Founder Andy Agathangelou welcomed the inquiry in our first ever Vlog, TTF TV .
As the Inquiry chair, Stephen Timms MP, told Radio 4 listeners last week, MPs ‘do not know’ where the money goes in these rogue schemes and it is very unlikely that the Government can recover money lost. However, we hope that the inquiry will help the victims of scams to pursue some measure of justice, and to prevent others being targeted.
In their Call for Evidence, MPs announce: “The deadline for written evidence is 9 September 2020. … your evidence will be able to have more impact on our work if we receive it by the deadline.”
by Alex Varley-Winter, Head of Media Relations & Investigative Reporting 27 July 2020
A new alliance is forming in Westminster against an ‘epidemic’ of devastating scams that are thought to have stripped up to £10bn from people’s hard-earned pension pots. Furthermore, people being targeted in scams increased during lockdown. Last week we prepared the ground for a dedicated All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pension Scams at a meeting between MPs, industry reps and victims. The Group’s inaugural meeting is scheduled for 7 September, and we hope it will serve as a touchstone for meaningful change.