Police in Fife have smashed Scotland’s largest organised gang of bogus builders and doorstep criminals, thought to have conned victims out of £2.5million.
A year-long investigation, entitled ‘Operation Nominate’, culminated in a number of dawn raids and 14 arrests as officers swooped on addresses in the Kingdom.
The 13 men and one woman are accused of targeting elderly and vulnerable people in their own homes, allegedly coercing them into parting with large sums of money for sub-standard or non-existent building work.
So far, £300,000 worth of assets have been identified, 14 vehicles seized and offences recorded across Scotland and England as far afield as Inverness and Northumbria.
Detective Inspector Steve Hamilton, leading the investigation, which was run in conjunction with Trading Standards, said his team has identified 54 alleged victims who have lost a total of £250,000, but says this figure represents just 10 per cent of the overall number of potential victims who could have fallen foul of the criminals, who could have been operating for a number of years.
DI Hamilton said: “Keeping people safe is the priority for Police Scotland and through Operation Nominate, we have identified doorstep criminality conducted in an organised manner on a national scale.
“These crimes directly target specific individuals with negative repercussions for the wider community.
“These victims are often left bereft of self-confidence, despicably and unscrupulously stripped of their savings by contemptible individuals focused exclusively on the attainment of power and profit.”
Nominate was set up to run alongside Police Scotland’s national initiative ‘Operation Monarda’ after bank of Scotland staff reported suspicious activity on Glenrothes pensioner’s account. It transpired the elderly widow, in her 80s, was conned out of £37,500 for fraudulent building work, having been driven to her local bank to withdraw cash on several occasions.
A 30-year-old man was subsequently jailed for the offence for 33 months but, after a detailed investigation of the crime, officers soon realised this was what DI Hamilton described as “the tip of the iceberg”.
A team of six officers was specially deployed to look into the backgrounds and lifestyles of what they believed to be the work of a highly effective and organised crime group operating from Fife.
Calling on the resources of Police Scotland and using covert surveillance techniques, it’s the first time north of the border such an operation, specifically targeting doorstep criminality, has been executed.
The three-tier approach first focused on those accused of cold-calling and bogus builder activity, before targeting planners thought to be responsible for managing the financial aspect of the group.
In the third tier of the operation, carried out in the last week, a number of arrests of those suspected of controlling the enterprise were carried out in a series of early-morning raids.
DI Hamilton says they have charged those suspects with over 200 charges, 100 of which are against one individual alone, and it is understood several of those arrested, who cannot be named at his stage for legal reasons, are also being investigated for money laundering, tax evasion and extortion.
“We have identified 54 victims but, as a conservative estimate, we think we are sitting on around 10 per cent of the real number of victims,”said DI Hamilton.
“The real issue here is under-reporting. A lot of people, because of their vulnerability, don’t actually see themselves as a victim.”
He has urged anyone concerned about cold callers or bogus workmen to contact the police immediately and has called upon people to remain vigilent for vulnerable neighbours.
The success and amount of alleged criminality detected by Operation Nominate has already seen the investigation extended for a further 12 months. A number of other Police Scotland divisions are also expected to adopt the Nominate team’s approach in a move to tackle similar gangs across the country.
And DI Hamilton had a warning for others involved in such crimes.
“This isn’t finished,” he warned.
“We are still out to apprehend those committing doorstep crime.
“I want to put these people in a position where they are vulnerable in their own homes. It is about targeting them in the same way they targeted the alleged victims.”
Co-ordinated approach will beat criminals
Fiona Richardson, chief officer with Trading Standards Scotland, said doorstep crime is the “number one priority” for the service across Scotland, although tackling it can be problematic.
“The work done on Operation Nominate shows that, by working together, the Police and Trading Standards can build stronger cases which reflect the full harm and impact of these types of crime. This in turn should lead to more convictions and stronger sentencing,” she said.
“It is essential that the two agencies strengthen their links, particularly in relation to information sharing.
The creation of Trading Standards Scotland and its intelligence unit will be of enormous value in achieving this aim.
In addition, the resources that TSS can provide to support cross-border investigations and cases will ensure these issues can be dealt with nationally as well as locally.
“Local trading standards are ideally placed to gather information and develop local interventions such as cold-calling zones.
“The message is clear. Doorstep crime is an increasing issue and to tackle it effectively, agencies must work together and share knowledge, information and skills.”