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'You have lied to an awful lot of people': Judge jails Neelam Desai for £230k travel business frauds

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THE conwoman who accused the Advertiser of "persecuting" her has been sentenced to 30 months for ripping off customers of her discount travel business. Neelam Desai, 34, offered customers cheap flights and trips but, when the packages began to fall through, she tried to pay them back by borrowing huge sums of cash and writing fraudulent cheques from her mother's bank account. Desai, of Beulah Grove, Selhurst, also used a stolen chequebook and ran the travel business - under a fake name - while bankrupt. It also emerged that she committed fraud while on a suspended sentence for deception, after dishonestly using her mother's home as security to obtain two loans. Desai's frauds totalled £230,790 but her lies finally caught up with her at Croydon Crown Court today (Monday). Judge Stephen Waller said Desai had "lied to an awful lot of people" while selling holidays and flights that were "too good to be true". This week's hearing was unconnected to an Advertiser investigation linking Desai to a series of dating website scams. That reporting led the former John Ruskin College police to threaten our chief reporter with arrest after she claimed he was "harassing" her. That threat - which was condemned by human rights and media groups - did not prevent the Advertiser from being in court as Desai learned her fate. Kathryn Pitters, prosecuting, said Desai had been involved in a "number of instances of financial dishonesty" between 2008 and 2012. Desai, she said, ran the travel business from her home and claimed to provide "magnificent and heavily discounted flights and holidays". As business spread through word of mouth, she was introduced to Dhanji Asani, who made numerous bookings for himself and his family, as well as for friends. "The deals that the defendant was offering were extraordinary in their scope and attracted a great deal of interest," said Miss Pitters. "Those deals, however, were too good to be true. They were so heavily discounted, that it was simply impossible for the defendant to deliver." Shortly before Christmas in 2008, Desai told Mr Asani she was having financial difficulties which meant bookings he had made for himself and his friends had fallen through. She reassured him by claiming her brother was about to lend her £180,000. To save face with his friends, Mr Asani loaned her £153,500 on the basis that he would be repaid £180,000. A week later, Desai told him she was "broke" but was due to receive various funds from hotels in the Seychelles and Dubai. He paid a further £23,000 into her account. When he received the same amount back a week or so later, Mr Asani was reassured enough to book more trips. On February 4, 2009, Desai sent him a cheque for £150,000. It had been written from her mother's bank account - without permission - with a guarantee it would clear. Miss Pitters said: "The cheque bounced as the defendant knew it would. Her assertions in that letter simply amounted to another part of the long deception." After several other failed promises to repay the money, Mr Asani visited Desai's home and asked to see her bank statements. When she refused, he contacted the police. It would later emerge that Desai was taking money from another customer to try and repay Mr Asani. Paresh Shah made a number of holiday bookings through Desai and, for one of the payments, was asked to transfer £10,000 into Mr Asani's account. Mr Shah enlisted the help of his uncle, Rajniakant Shah, who paid £43,295 into Desai's account in January 2009. A few days later she asked Mr Shah for £55,000 so she could pay a bond to become a licensed travel agent, but his uncle refused to help. On February 26, his uncle received a cheque for £70,000 from Desai. The cheque was written from Desai's mother's account and, again, without permission. It also bounced. A few days earlier Desai had appeared at Croydon Crown Court and been handed a nine month sentence, suspended for a year, after pleading guilty to using deception to obtain two loans, in her mother's name and secured against her mother's house, which she had not been able to repay. The court heard that Desai was declared bankrupt on March 10, but continued to do business under the name Nisha Patel. Desai was arrested in connection with the travel business frauds on March 18 and was later bailed. Three other customers later contacted the police when Desai tried to repay three sums - £4,000, £2,660 and £3,500 – using a chequebook stolen from Niraj Dhokia. Mr Dhokia told police he did not know a Nisha Patel or Neelam Desai, and that he had not written the cheques. The Royal Bank of Scotland confirmed he had previously contacted them to say he had not received the chequebook. Abigail Penny, defending, said Desai had been given the chequebook by "someone else" as a way of "getting herself out of the trouble she was in". Another of Desai's victims was a minicab driver working for Roadrunners in West Croydon. Desai, who he knew as Nisha Patel, employed the man from November 2009 and February 2010 to deliver tickets and pick up cash. He had four mobile numbers for her. He later paid Desai £3,195 for tickets which he did not receive. The court also heard that Desai used Ariana Travel, in London Road, Thornton Heath, to book the trips. She made a large number of bookings between November 2009 and March 2010 and always paid in cash. Later, in 2012, Desai tricked several people into handing over hundreds of pounds by claiming online that she had iPhones for sale when she did not. When Desai was arrested and later charged for the earlier offences, she admitted borrowing money from Mr Asani and trying to repay him and Mr Shah's uncle from her mother's account. When asked where the money had gone, Desai claimed she was spending £1,000 on her phone bill and £10,000 on friends and family per month. She also mentioned a Mr Patel, someone who she claimed had received £20,000 for bookings he had made. Desai said Mr Patel was "the only person making money" from her actions, and denied being involved in a scam where they split the money. Mr Patel was later interviewed by the police but not charged. In an interview with the Advertiser last month, Desai claimed a "gang of men" made her commit the frauds she has pleaded guilty to, adding that they had threatened to kill her mother if she did not comply. We put these allegations to the Met and a spokesman said no one else was being sought in connection with the offences. The claims were not mentioned during Monday's hearing, during which Miss Penny admitted her client was "very much in the front of this case". "While there may well be people behind her, it is not in my instruction to indicate that," she added. In mitigation, Miss Penny said Desai had a "history of depression" caused by the unexpected death of her father. In a letter to the court, Nila Desai said her daughter was "essentially a very nice, giving and kind person" but that "something had changed in her" after the collapse of her marriage and her father's death. Miss Penny claimed her client had a personality disorder but a psychological report - commissioned by the defence - said that was not the case. It instead found that Desai had a "bias towards exaggerating". Judge Waller concluded there was "nothing wrong with her psychologically" and criticised Miss Penny for using public money to pay for the report. Desai initially denied the offences when the case came to court but changed her plea on the first day of her trail on March 3 this year. Miss Penny said: "She knows she has done something wrong and, it may have taken some time, but she has accepted responsibility." Desai, who covered her face with a scarf to avoid having her photograph taken as she arrived at court, looked on impassively as Judge Waller said he had no choice but to impose a custodial sentence. He gave her 27 months covering four counts of fraud, three of handling stolen goods and one of doing business while bankrupt, as well as a further three months for breaching the suspended sentence. Seven other counts of fraud, six relating to cheques and one to selling an iPhone she did not have, were left on file. Desai was arrested and later bailed last month on suspicion of ten counts of fraud by false representation. Her arrest followed an Advertiser investigation into a honey trap scam which saw men tricked out of tens of thousands of pounds by a woman on Asian marriage website Shaadi.com. Nisha Patel was among the aliases used by the woman. The Met has yet to respond to the Advertiser's legal request to revoke the harassment order made against our reporter. The matter is being raised with the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

'You have lied to an awful lot of people': Judge jails Neelam Desai for £230k travel business frauds


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