The boss of defunct Caribbean property group Harlequin was found guilty by a jury at Southwark Crown Court on two counts of fraud by abuse of position on 3 August 2022.
This comes after an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) found David Ames was behind a £226m ($274m, €270m) property investment fraud involving celebrity-endorsed luxury resorts in the Caribbean.
The SFO investigation uncovered how Ames deceived over 8,000 UK savers to invest in the Harlequin Group, a hotel and resorts development venture. Victims were led to believe they had a secure investment in property whereas, in reality, Harlequin Group was never operating as promised.
Over seven years, investor losses totalled an estimated £398m. The indictment period of 2010 – 2013 saw investors lose £226m.
Harlequin’s business model relied upon investors paying a 30% deposit to purchase an unbuilt villa or hotel room, half of which went toward fees for Harlequin and relevant salespeople, while the group put the remaining 15% toward construction.
Investors were “fraudulently told that the building of the properties would be further funded by external financial backing”, the SFO said.
With no additional source of funding, three properties needed to be purchased to finance just one of the luxury accommodation units. The SFO said this led to the “exponential expansion of the scheme, the diversion of investor money between resorts and ultimately a funding shortfall of over £1.2bn by 2012” – seven years after Ames launched the scheme.
By this point, an expert accountant told Southwark Crown Court that investors were exposed to a near 100% risk of loss, which Ames did not contest.
The SFO investigation revealed that by the time it went into administration in 2013, Harlequin had sold around 9,000 property units to investors, with less than 200 ever actually being constructed.
Throughout the entire eight-year project, only 28 of over 8,000 investors ever completed on a purchase, leaving well over 99% with no return on their investment. The Harlequin Group ultimately lost a total of £398m of investor funds.
Several thousand victims lost pensions and life savings to the fraud.
Lisa Osofsky, director of the SFO, said: “David Ames committed fraud on a huge scale, knowingly exposing thousands of UK investors to losses totalling hundreds of millions of pounds. Diligent SFO investigators reviewed millions of documents, traced over 8,000 investor deposits and called on more than 25 witnesses, to expose the full extent of Ames’ deception.”