An estate agent has been jailed after she swindled £67,000 from tenants and newlyweds – and pumped the ill-gotten gains into her failing business.
Helen Gregory, 55, was investigated by Trading Standards after complaints from tenants who had not received their deposit money back.
Following the investigation, Gregory admitted three charges of engaging in unfair commercial practices in August last year.
At the time the estate agent – who owned agencies which operated in the Peaks, Dales, and Chesterfield – reassured the court that she would repay the £67,000 to identified victims.
But Gregory, of Chesterfield, Derbys., has now been jailed for ten months after not paying back a single penny – despite £45,000 being paid to her by another business in December 2014 and January this year.
The court heard instead of giving the money to creditors, as promised, Gregory immediately transferred the funds into her partner’s account – who then bought the couple a £25,000 Jaguar car, Derby Crown Court heard.
Judge John Burgess said: “There are victims who are quite understandably furious.
“Not just that they lost their money, but the case has been strung-out for two years or more.
“It sticks in the throat that someone could buy themselves out of a custodial sentence.”
Jailing Gregory, Judge Burgess said:
“It would have been more impressive if the £45,000 you received had not been paid to your partner, and then funds from that process gone to a payment of an expensive motor car. This money should have been paid back to creditors.”
In 2011, Trading Standards began investigating Gregory after receiving dozens of complaints that deposit money had not been paid back tenants.
Christopher Lowe, prosecuting, said investigations found a total of 1,126 deposits were received by Gregory during the five years of her offending.
Mr Lowe said: “Of which some 796 had not been paid into the Deposit Protection Scheme. These deposits total some £548,747.”
Further investigations found that £67,000 was owed to victims identified by Trading Standards.
Robert Sandford, defending Gregory, said the rest of the money had been paid back to tenants — despite not being paid into the scheme.
The investigation found that deposits received by Gregory, which should have been paid into the Deposit Protection Service had not been received by the service.
Gregory was registering tenancy deposits with the service, but many were cancelled by the service after money was not transferred into the scheme.
In December 2012 Gregory was arrested by police on suspicion of fraud by abusing her position as a director.
In August 2014 – after pleading guilty – Gregory claimed she was close to selling a property in Matlock, which would raise enough funds to repay victims.
The judge accepted this offer and delayed sentencing.
But the court heard last week that this sale had fallen through and no subsequent offers had been made.
However, Mr Sandford said Gregory’s partner had exchanged contracts on a property he owned in Bakewell, and was prepared to pay her debt with the proceeds.
Mr Sandford said there was a “real prospect” that victims could be repaid in full by the start of June.
But Judge Burgess did not accept the offer. He said: “This is a case of promises, promises, promises being made and not kept.
“I’m not prepared to accept another promise and have to look at the damage which has been done.
“The harm can be seen in the anger expressed by the people who have lost money because of you.
“This is far too serious for anything other than a custodial sentence.”
In mitigation, Mr Sandford said Gregory had an “unblemished character” before the charges were brought against her.
He said Gregory’s businesses began failing as the financial crisis unfolded.
He said she started “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
Now a couple who fell victim to the scam have spoken of their devastation after losing nearly £1,000 of wedding-present cash to the jailed estate agent.
Bride-to-be Hannah Owen found the ideal home in Darley Dale with Gregory’s estate agency, just days before she wed partner Trefor in December 2010.
After the big day, the couple handed £950 to Gregory as a deposit.
Hannah said the money was gifted to them by friends and family who attended the wedding.
She said: “I phoned the DPS, who said there was no account registered for our property. This is when I began to fear the worst.
“I then contacted trading standards, who informed me of all the other suspected victims.”
Recalling the documentation Gregory gave her, Hannah said: “We were given, what looked like, a photocopied DPS brochure. There was nothing which had our names on or anything.
“But we didn’t question anything because you trust estate agencies to follow the law.”
Hannah and Trefor still live at the property, which is owned by a landlord, who let the property through Gregory’s company.
Their landlord has promised the couple will get their deposit back if they decide to move out. But losing wedding cash to the jailed landlord still stings. Hannah said: “We saw the house before our wedding and fell in love. It’s such a beautiful place.
“We asked for money as presents, and put it towards the house.
“I still feel upset that this money – those gifts – were stolen. We feel like we were duped by somebody we should have been able trust.”
Gregory was also banned from working as a company director for six years.
A proceeds of crime hearing has been set for September 10.