Pudsey bear fraudsters jailed after conning £500,000 out of public by posing as charity collectors

21 December 2023, 20:48

David Levi, 47, the criminal group collected money from the public under the guise that it would all be handed over to good causes
David Levi, 47, the criminal group collected money from the public under the guise that it would all be handed over to good causes. Picture: CPS

By Christian Oliver

A gang of charity fraudsters who conned the public out of at least £500,000 by posing as supermarket bucket collectors have been jailed.

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The gang of fake collectors exploited public goodwill by posing as collectors for children's charities - including Children In Need, Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity, The Children's Society, The Christie Charitable Fund and Mind.

David Lavi, 47 - who was signed out as the lead scammer - contacted charities and asked permission to collect on their behalf with the use of their branding and logo materials.

The group set up stalls and tables in supermarkets and used fake ID badges, banners, and even a Pudsey Bear costume.

The gang collected at least £500,000 but paid less than 10 per cent to the charities, Preston Crown Court was told.

Judge Andrew Jefferies KC said he could only guess the actual amount pocketed by the gang and that some deposits of cash with the charities took place when police started to make inquiries.

"This was a massive breach of trust. You all exploited the public goodwill and, in some case, private grief," the judge said as he sentenced Levi and his co-defendants.

"It was a duel deceit to the public detriment and in undermining public confidence.

"The British public is always relied upon to give generously to charitable causes and they do so even when they may not have much themselves."

One charity wrote in its victim personal statement that trust in monies given to charities had been "tainted" and another said the lack of trust meant "seriously young children and their families are negatively impacted".

Martin Ebanks (pictured), 60, of Oldham, admitted fraud and was jailed for 18 months and 22 months respectively
Martin Ebanks (pictured), 60, of Oldham, admitted fraud and was jailed for 18 months and 22 months respectively. Picture: CPS

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The court was told how Levi and his gang of fraudsters persuaded shops to allow collections under false pretences.

The fake collectors are said to have claimed they had permission from head office or charity managers and threatened to report an employee to their national office if they did not permit them.

Lancashire Police opened an investigation in May 2017 after a referral to Action Fraud by Children In Need.

In June, officers raided Levi's home address and business premises in Lytham, Lancashire, and recovered multiple phones, tablets and charity items.

Detectives then built the case using financial, telephone and cell-site evidence as well as surveillance of some of the collections themselves.

Levi on Thursday was jailed for five years after admitting fraud and money laundering. He will be subject to a five-year serious crime prevention order following his release on licence.

William Ormand, 64, of Blackpool, a collector who at times played a leading role, was jailed for three years and four months after being convicted of fraud and money laundering.

Roy Ferguson, 63, also of Blackpool, largely a collector, was imprisoned for two years and five months for fraud and money laundering.

Howard Collins, 73, who collected and also organised collectors, received a 28-month jail term for fraud and money laundering.

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Fellow bogus collectors Martin Ebanks, 60, of Oldham, and Stephen Chesterman, 63, of Benfleet, both admitted fraud and were jailed for 18 months and 22 months respectively.

Kaysha Beck, 31, of Lytham, who provided office support for the fraudsters, was jailed for 18 months after she too admitted fraud and money laundering.

Following sentencing, Detective Chief Inspector Mark Riley said: "When people donate to a charity they rightly expect that their money will go to supporting good causes and not to lining the pockets of greedy conmen like David Levi and his gang.

"They have exploited peoples' goodwill and honesty to the tune of thousands of pounds, and I'm pleased that we have been able to bring them to justice."

Hayley Cooper, specialist prosecutor from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: "The actions of David Levi and the criminal group deprived life-saving charities of significant amounts of money.

"Members of the public gave their money generously and in good faith, perhaps reassured by seeing the logos of national charities. Sadly, the majority of the donations were pocketed by the defendants.

"Whenever money is collected for charity there must be absolute transparency and in bucket collections, every penny donated must go those charities.

"At the CPS, we have specialist teams to prosecute cases of serious fraud such as this and we work closely with investigators to bring perpetrators to justice."

The Charity Commission for England and Wales said: "These criminals shamefully abused the good name of some of Britain's most well-known charities and their jail sentences send a strong warning.

"Most charity fundraising is legitimate and scams of this scale are rare. But as opportunistic scammers can try to take advantage of the trust we have in charities, if you think something doesn't seem right either report it to the charity or check if it is listed on one of three charity registers in the UK."