Alistair Woods is thought to have netted as much as pounds 500,000 through a simple ruse that milked its victims through flattery.
He simply wrote to restaurants, saying they had passed a secret inspection and were entitled to a special certificate and inclusion in the forthcoming "1998 Good Restaurant Guide" - all for just pounds 19. Owners were unctuously congratulated and the money flowed in.
For many restaurants, from the humblest of back-street cafes to high- street brasseries, it seemed too good to be true. Alas, it was. The certificates were worth no more than the paper they were printed on and the guide never existed.
At the height of the scam, it is thought Woods cashed up to pounds 5,000 a week from cheques that rolled in to his first-floor flat in Leyton, east London.
When trading standards officers caught him in July they found pounds 80,000 in uncashed cheques. That day's mailbag alone contained another pounds 20,000 from delighted restaurateurs.
Using a PC and expensive printer, Woods had sent certificates to restaurants he had culled from a Thomson directory CD database. He was arrested on a host of charges including theft and deception after a joint operation by police and trading standards officers.
Investigators said Woods had devised similar schemes in the past, including guides for garages, florists, takeaways and hairdressers.
But Woods appears to have had the last laugh. He has been freed from Brixton prison in south London, where he was on remand, after the CPS decided there was not enough evidence to conclude the case successfully.
Despite reams of evidence from investors, Woods cannot be tried because he ultimately did send certificates - however worthless - to those who sent him money.
The outcome has infuriated police and council officials. Woods, a former electrician, has now left Britain for South Africa to be with his wife and nine-year-old boy.
Detective Constable Dave Job, of Leyton CID, said: "It would have been nice to have put this forward as a test case, as we think no jury would have considered it right or proper. It means he is free to do it again - in theory, basically anybody could."
One London trading standards officer said: "It has taken a lot of time to get him and now we find all our hard work has been wasted.
"Thousands of restaurants around the country have been ripped off and if this is the CPS's idea of public service then perhaps they should think about getting other jobs."
t Police are hunting a conman who duped businessmen out of thousands of pounds after offering crates of champagne at knockdown prices.
At least 25 embarrassed executives have confessed to being conned by the man, who told them he had a few cases left over from an office party. He took the money but the bottles never appeared. Detectives say he has netted pounds 50,000 over the past three months by offering to take pounds 100 for a case that would normally cost at least three times as much.
Suspicions were raised in May when the man tried his technique on the chief executive of the British Olympic Association in Wandsworth, south London, who became suspicious and called police.
Scotland Yard officers fear he may now be trying the same trick outside the London area. They have named a man they want to interview - 52-year-old John Claugston, originally from Brighton.Reuse content