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Mock auction fraud gang face jail

A gang of confidence tricksters fleeced the public of thousands of pounds in a slick and cunning operation.

A jury unanimously convicted all six members of the devious team behind Brighton city centre store The Outlet of conspiring to defraud the public using a scam dating back to Victorian times.

Jurors took almost eight hours to find them guilty after a three-week trial costing Brighton and Hove council tax payers up to £50,000.

Judge Richard Hayward said: "You have all been convicted frankly on the clearest of evidence, of conspiracy to fleece the public." He warned he was considering sending them all to jail.

An argument broke out after the verdict was announced, as two of the defendants turned on each other outside the court.

Lisa Firth, 30, accused John Cook, the man she had considered her boss, of ruining her life, screaming: "How could you do this to me? I have a son."

Brighton and Hove City Council's trading standards department launched an investigation in October 2001 after receiving more complaints about The Outlet than any other business in recent years.

Officers discovered the gang, thought to number at least 11 people, was luring customers inside with promises of major bargains on high-quality branded goods.

The store, in North Street, promised camcorders and PlayStations at rock bottom prices but in reality these things were never sold.

Most of the "bargains" never even existed.

People were persuaded to part with money for goods they had never intended to buy. When the auction-style sales were over, customers were hustled outside,where they discovered their purchases were faulty or of poor quality.

Fifty people complained to trading standards in less than six weeks. Officers believe that was just "the tip of the iceberg", with most victims too embarrassed to come forward. Documents discovered when the store was raided on November 30, 2001, revealed the gang had already raked in £77,000 - more than £2,300 a day.

Salesman David Cranston, helpers Liam McBratney, Barry Joseph and John Sexton, and Lisa Firth - in charge of the day-to-day running - were arrested during the raid.

John Cook, who described himself as the owner, was arrested the following day as he tried to get into the store.

Two other men were arrested at the store but jumped bail.

The court was told one of them, Gary May, was dead but no death certificate was ever produced. The other, ex-policeman Dion Botha, is thought to have returned to South Africa.

Another man, Charlie Smith, said to be running the show with Cook, escaped during the raid and has not been seen since. Several other gang members were never traced.

The prosecution maintained each of the six on trial had a separate but clear role.

Seller Cranston, 43, was a "main player" who used skilled, clever and intricate language to confuse and "befuddle" his audience.

Joseph, 36, was a "willing participant" in his role as a "gopher", McBratney was a "willing employee" as was Sexton, another helper.

Cook, who shared a bank account with Charlie Smith, played a "proprietorial" role, having his name above the shop and on the licence.

Cook was the only one to choose not to go into the witness box at Hove Crown Court and defend himself.

The jury did not know that gang members, including Cranston, had operated a similar enterprise in the Petticoat Lane area of London for the last decade.

When Tower Hamlets Council shut it down, the gang turned its attention to Brighton.

Ray Moore, principal trading standards officer for Brighton and Hove, said the gang was "ruthless and violent" and preyed on people's trust.

The jury was not told that an asp, a type of cosh, was found at The Outlet and a knife was discovered on Joseph.

A scanner found could have allowed the gang to intercept police broadcasts.

Mr Moore said: "This is a very lucrative business. It is not long before those involved become very wealthy."

He hoped the case would end a method of selling used to con people for more than a century.

He said: "Technically these were not mock auctions but the language they used - words like plunder, taps and bungs - was that of mock auctions dating back to the time of Charles Dickens. It's very much an East End thing."

The gang had tailored its scam to try to get round the law against mock auctions. It bans free gifts, so the gang drew the public in by giving things away for a penny instead.

Mr Moore said: "Thousands across the country have been conned in this way but since the Outlet raid there have been none in the South of England."

After the verdict, trading standards officers revealed they acted to prevent the gang from striking again.

In July last year, Brighton and Hove trading standards department became the first in the UK to use a new piece of European legislation called Stop Now.

The orders ban vendors from selling poor quality goods in Europe. If they breach the injunction they will effectively be in contempt of court and face prison terms of up to two years.

McBratney, of Lansdowne Place, Hove, Firth, of Greenacres, Shoreham, Sexton, of Tufnell Park Road, London, Cook, of College Cross, Islington, London, Cranston, of Little Bay Close, Stotfield, Hertfordshire and Joseph, of Elia Street, Islington, were remanded on bail until March 4 for sentencing.

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