Following Osborne’s triumphant releasing of pensioners to unlock their annuity contracts to spend how they will, there were many siren voices raised that that risked exposing many vulnerable elderly people to crooks and scammers selling dud investment projects as the road to riches. The results have turned out even worse than feared. City of London police are now having to wage a huge campaign against the use of some of the Square Mile’s most prestigious addresses as a cover for scams purporting to sell overseas land for investment as well as wine, diamonds, etc. Police say such scams cost mostly elderly and vulnerable people at least £1.7bn last year, with fraudsters typically returning to their victims a second timein the guise of ‘asset recovery specialists’ who pursue lost money for a fee.
The criminals – young, smart suits, lots of cash – make high-pressure cold calls urging people to place large sums in too-good-to-be-true schemes involving wine, gems, antiques, overseas property, oil wells, forestry, carbon credits and other exotic commodities. They buy lists of individuals who may be receiving lump sums from their pensions or who are vulnerable because of dementia or other illnesses. Once victims realise they have lost their money, scammers often strike again, resurfacing as ‘recovery rooms’ offering to track down lost funds for a fee of about £5,000. The average scam raises £1.25m, but fraudulent companies quickly rise from the ashes and ‘phoenix’ into new ones.
Another consequence of Osborne’s boasted opening up Britain for business has been his success in masking the UK’s property market a magnet for the world’s corrupt – a headquarters for money laundering which the head of the National Crime Agency has dubbed a “strategic threat to the UK’s economy”. Official estimates now suggest hundreds of billions of pounds of criminal money is laundered through UK banks and their subsidiaries each year. The property sector, which Osborne has done so much to cultivate and favour, is particularly vulnerable when properties are owned through complex offshore company structures. Analysis of Land Registry data estimates that at least £122bn worth of UK property is now owned through such structures.
More than half a million were set up in the UK in the past financial year and about a third were incorporated through the online service which does not carry out any due diligence and is not subject to anti-money laundering regulation. Even 8% of accountancy practices visited by supervisory bodies were not compliant with anti-money laundering regulations. Cameron has just pledged to increase transparency to prevent corrupt officials using off-the-shelf companies to invest in London property. So why doesn’t he force the beneficial owners of companies that possess property to be named in the Land Registry?