Pensions 

Companies behind £9m pension truffle scam shut down

Companies behind £9m pension truffle scam shut down

Five companies which cheated more than 100 investors out of almost £9m of their pension savings have been wound up by the High Court.

The companies - Viceroy Jones New Tech Ltd, Viceroy Jones Overseas PCC Limited, Westcountrytruffles Limited, Truffle Sales Ltd and Credit Free Limited - carried out the investment scam by promising high-value truffles for commercial sales.

During a four-day trial, the court heard Viceroy Jones New Tech used a network of unregulated financial advisory firms and targeted people who had access to their pension savings.

According to the Insolvency Service, the advisers had close working relationships with George Frost, the common director of Viceroy Jones New Tech, Viceroy Jones Overseas PCC and Westcountrytruffles, and convinced the victims to transfer their savings into small self administered schemes (Ssas), operated by two of these companies based in the Seychelles.

Investors were told their savings were funding oak and hazel tree saplings, inoculated with truffle spores, and planted and managed for 15 years at dedicated plantations worldwide.

The truffles would then be cultivated on a commercial scale with investors and plantation companies benefiting from the sales.

But investigators from the Insolvency Service found no harvesting or cultivation has ever taken place, despite the scheme launching to the public back in 2012.

The companies had devised convoluted contractual structures and manipulated costs to secure high-value investments, it added.

For example, investors paid between £750 and £995 per sapling with the promise they would see significant returns within five years after the truffles had been cultivated. But similar inoculated saplings were available to the public at a cost of only £7.95 to £9.95.

Some £9m worth of investments remains unexplained, with investors’ funds originally paid into third party offshore bank accounts, the Insolvency Service stated. Investigators were told the majority of funds were paid as commissions, although no supporting records have been provided to substantiate this, the service added.

Cheryl Lambert, chief investigator for the Insolvency Service, said the companies and those behind them had shown "no remorse in their calculated plan to scam investors of their pension pots".

She said: "Although the Insolvency Service investigation was hampered by a lack of cooperation, the investigation pieced together the numerous layers in which the scam was wrapped.

"We take the matter of unregulated pension liberation investment schemes very seriously and will take action to stop any such schemes who have acted unscrupulously."

Pension liberation, unlike other pension transfer-related scams, happens when a saver is persuaded to access their pension funds before the age of 55, when permission has not been provided by HM Revenue and Customs.

maria.espadinha@ft.com