Sentences for fraudsters caught by spelling error

An elaborate plot to defraud the banking system ended at Birmingham Crown Court yesterday with prison sentences for the scam's ringleaders. The court also ordered the seizure of a BMW car belonging to one of the gang which had been used in a car chase across Oxfordshire as the police moved in on the ring in March 1996.

Sanjeev Rana was sentenced to three years, while his accomplices, Sukjit Virk and Satwant Basi, received jail terms of 12 months each. A fourth defendant, Deepak Panwar, will serve 12 months' detention in a young offenders institution. Rajeev Rana, the owner of the BMW, is to be sentenced in January.

The scam perpetrated by the ring involved forging letters of authority from one of a bank's commercial customers, requesting the transfer of money from its account to another account at a different bank. The account information needed to set up the transfer was asked for over the telephone from the victim companies on the pretext of setting up a transfer under the banks' automated payment system.

For the scheme to work, the conspirators had to find people who were willing for their accounts to be used to receive the transferred funds. The recipient of the funds usually got to keep a percentage of the money.

Philip Lewis, a lawyer at the Serious Fraud Office, which brought the case with the West Midlands Police Fraud Squad, said: "This fraud was alarmingly simple to carry out. Had the defendants succeeded in all of their dishonest efforts the loss would have been over pounds 7m."

After his arrest Sukjit Virk told police he had become involved in the fraud because he had no money and "with Sanjeev [Rana] you go out to bars, drink champagne, get girls, live a life".

One of the stooges whose accounts were used to collect the money, Richard Culverhouse, was yesterday fined pounds 1,000 and ordered to pay pounds 1,000 in costs. He had pounds 32,000 worth of assets seized which are to paid to National Westminster Bank.

Between December 1995 and May 1996 the big clearing banks were defrauded of almost pounds 2m. They were only stopped after a simple spelling mistake repeated on each of the 131 separate letters sent by the gang linked all the attempts. The recurrent use of the mis-spelt "sincerly" when signing off the letters demonstrated all the fraudulent transactions were connected.

On 11 March 1996, Rana and Virk were arrested and charged at Wantage in Oxfordshire, where Virk had just delivered one of the forged letters of authority to a branch of Barclays Bank. The arrests followed a car chase during which they had thrown from the car various items of incriminating evidence, including a mobile phone used to phone up target companies.

The scam continued even after they were arrested and told they had been captured on video researching target companies at Companies House and delivering forged letters. Knowing this, they continued to seek information from Companies House by post while on bail and arranged for the letters to be delivered by taxi drivers.