The role of investigative journalism was praised today as a top level computer consultant was jailed for 16 months in connection with a “pitiless deception” in which he sought to con hard up students into having sex with him in return for falsely offering to pay their university fees.
Mark Lancaster, 40, who was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time of his arrest last year, was exposed following an undercover investigation by The Independent into the website and fictitious business Sponsorascholar.co.uk.
The pornography-addicted father-of-two admitted a charge of voyeurism and another of trafficking after tricking an 18-year-old student into travelling to a rented flat in Milton Keynes, where he filmed her with four secret cameras dressing up as a schoolgirl and posing for photographs before having sex with her.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was duped by the website which she found through a Google search when she was seeking legitimate forms of finance for her studies. It offered up to £15,000 in return for four meetings a year with fictitious “sponsors”.
Southwark Crown Court heard how the victim, who was originally from Kenya and came from a one parent family, was tempted as she faced fees for her university course of £11,000 and a further £5,000 for accommodation.
She was due to start her course in September 2012 and wanted to “reduce the burden on her mother” who was a “hard working nurse”, the prosecution said.
Although she was aware that the site was soliciting sex she was simply seeking to find out about it when she attended the meeting with Lancaster. She had hoped to control her involvement in the “scheme” but was overwhelmed by the IT expert’s personality and the momentum of the situation.
“She was in a strange apartment in a strange city, wearing strange clothes with no money, high heels on and simply felt she could not run away,” said Lisa Wilding for the prosecution.
“In her words she felt `really gross’ about it. She felt there was nothing she could do about the situation she found herself in,” she added.
Afterwards when she heard nothing the victim contacted Lancaster who told her she had been unsuccessful in her “application”. He refunded her a £60 postal order for her travel and invited her to apply again in the future.
As a result of her experience her life was torn apart. She was humiliated in front of her friends when they found out and forced to miss a year of her studies although she intends to resume a degree this year.
Mr Justice Testar said the scam had damaged her relationship with her mother and her peers. “She lost confidence in herself - most crucially - and lost confidence in other people. I have no doubt she has lost confidence in any man she meets,” he said.
Describing the scam as a “deliberate and elaborate lie,” the judge sentenced Lancaster to 16 months for voyeurism and the same for trafficking to run concurrently. He was also placed on the Sex Offenders Register for 10 years.
Ms Wilding said police were alerted to Lancaster following publication of details of the scam in The Independent when a reporter posed as a prospective student. She was told by Lancaster that he was the “assessor” for the fake scheme and that she would be required to have sex with him as a “practical” before she could receive any money.
“His activities came to the attention of journalists to whom thanks must be offered. For it was through investigative journalism that the defendant was revealed and as a direct result his activities and his website was brought to an end,” Ms Wilding said.
Detectives from Scotland Yard's human trafficking unit believe as many as 40 women had contacted the site. Lancaster, from Horndean, Hampshire, lived an outwardly respectable existence with a lrage house and an apparently happy marriage. He had been employed by the Ministry of Defence and IBM during a high-flying career in which he had clearance to work on highly sensitive military data.
But he deployed his skills to set up the website in the name of a respected academic from the London School of Economics having randomly selected him because he was the same age and of similar appearance. When he was alerted to the fraud the lecturer believed he might have been being smeared as a result of his pro-Palestinian views.
But the website was a vehicle designed for Lancaster’s own personal sexual gratification. In mitigation counsel for Lancaster, Patrick Harte, said his client had been de-sensitised to the impact his crimes as a result of the habitual use of internet pornography for which he had now received treatment. “It was cheap sex he was looking for and that was what he got,” said Mr Harte.
Lancaster organised a number of “assessment sessions” across London and the South East. As well as setting up the original site, he also created two fake “review” sites praising Sponsorascholar.co.uk and urging others to take up the offer of money in return for sex.
After Lancaster was identified by The Independent he made a two and a half page statement to his employers, the FCO, in which he said: “Whilst the acts I have committed might not be considered moral or decent, I do not believe they constitute a criminal offence and I have not been contacted by police.” However, he used specialist software to erase the films he had made and smashed the hard drives.
Sarah Jennings, Crown Prosecution Service London reviewing lawyer, said: “Lancaster set up this elaborate scam with the sole purpose of sexually exploiting female students who found themselves in a vulnerable financial situation. This was a particularly nasty and degrading experience for the woman involved, which robbed her of valued privacy.”