Trading standards officers searching for funds a cowboy gardener conned out of elderly customers discovered he stashed away £150,000 in off-shore bank accounts.
Benjamin Brown, 62, of Epsom, Surrey, who is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for fraud and money laundering, ignored a court order to disclose all his accounts and moved large sums around before he was jailed.
Trading standards investigators untangled his financial dealings and at a court hearing on Tuesday 17 May, Brown was ordered to repay £280,000 – with 10 victims getting back every penny that he cheated out of them.
Brown, of Cox Lane, who traded under the names Greenfingers Gardening and Homecare Property Maintenance, offered services such as landscape gardening, paving and fencing.
Trading standards stepped in after receiving reports of rip-off charges and poor quality work, and complaints that queries about price or worksmanship led to threats, verbal abuse and aggression. In one case, a woman in her 90s was charged £24,500 for work worth £400.
In June last year, Brown pleaded guilty to eight Fraud Act offences and four Proceeds of Crime Act offences and was jailed in October.
On Tuesday 17 May, Brown was brought back to Guildford Crown Court for a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing to recover cash from his available assets, which include a mortgage-free home, two parcels of land – one in Ewhurst and the other near Horley – and sums held in bank accounts and cash.
It followed a financial investigation by trading standards officers which found that in the months before he was jailed, Brown moved £148,979 from three off-shore accounts based in the Isle of Man to two UK accounts in his wife’s name.
Judge Neil Stewart made a confiscation order demanding Brown pays back £279,979 within three months or face an extra two years in jail, with the possibility of further jail time added on for breaching a court order restricting his financial dealings.
Ten customers who came forward to complain they were fleeced by Brown will be repaid in full, receiving £97,650 between them. The victims’ homes were in Epsom, Richmond, Ham, Sutton, Wallington, Twickenham, North Cheam and Carshalton. One has since died.
Of the remaining cash due to be repaid by Brown, Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards* is set to receive £63,000, which will be reinvested in protecting consumers. The rest will go to the Home Office.
Over six years from 2006 to 2012, Brown, who appeared in court via video link from HMP Brixton, was found to have benefited from his criminal activity to the tune of £549,313.
Richard Walsh, Surrey County Council’s Cabinet Member for Localities and Community Wellbeing, said: ‘Brown lined his pockets by ripping off elderly and vulnerable people and then tried to hide his ill-gotten gains but thanks to a painstaking investigation which untangled his complex financial affairs he will now have to pay back customers he conned.
‘Not only do unscrupulous traders like Brown spell misery for consumers, they undermine reputable firms working hard to provide a good service and we will do all we can to stop them in their tracks.’
* Buckinghamshire and Surrey operate a joint trading standards service