'Cowboy builders' accused of £1 million fraud

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The Independent Online

A gang of cowboy builders fleeced homeowners out of nearly £1 million for work they never did, a court heard today.

The builders quoted for contracts totalling £1.8 million, then collected as much cash up front as possible before leaving their victims "in the lurch" and disappearing.

Mark Dixon, 43, Nicholas Harris, 45, Matthew Higgins, 33, Leighton Docksey, 34, and Lee Ireson, 30, are accused of conning more than 50 people across the south of England, Bristol Crown Court heard.

Prosecutor Rupert Lowe, opening the case for the Crown, told jurors that the five ran two linked firms called Construction Management Development Ltd and CMD Services Ltd in Gloucester.

"This case concerns a fraud by what we generally call cowboy builders," Mr Lowe told the court.

"Their business was to get as much money out of their customers as quickly as they could and leave them in the lurch with a half-finished project and in a mess.

"They were left out of pocket by the greed and dishonesty by the five men in the dock.

"They found it was a very profitable way of doing business."

Mr Lowe said the gang operated by targeting homeowners who had been granted planning permission for extensions.

The gang claimed to be specialists at one and two-storey extensions and would offer very competitive quotes, an early start to the job and supply references from supposedly satisfied customers.

"They were given the names of referees who had been previous customers of CMD, or so they thought," Mr Lowe said.

"Either they were customers whose work had just started or they were completely fake."

Mr Lowe said that once a contract was signed, the victims would be asked to hand over a deposit of between 10% and 20% ahead of work starting.

One victim was quoted a price of £238,000 for work to his home and was conned out of £20,000, jurors were told.

"The work seems to have started well and some of the customers were asked to be referees and many of them agreed to do it," Mr Lowe said.

"These contracts were heavily front-loaded with a hefty deposit and then a payment on day one.

"Very soon customers were paying quite a lot more money than the valuation of the work done so far.

"But sooner or later some of the customers thought they were paying a high price for the amount of work being done.

"When they questioned the arrangements, they were told, 'We'll have to stop', and quite a few were told if they didn't pay, 'We'll have to sue you for breach of contract'.

"Their general operation was to get as much money as possible and when there was no more money to be got they would move on to the next."

Mr Lowe said the gang used false names to try to make it difficult for the victims to get in touch with them after they vanished, and the five never finished a job they started.

"They simply had no intention of completing their side of the contract," Mr Lowe said.

"Their business was geared to getting money. The whole operation was dishonest from start to finish, taking the maximum amount of money, doing the minimum work and then scarper."

Dixon, of Ash Lane, Down Hatherley; Harris, of The Ash Path, Upton St Leonards; Higgins, of Nelson Street, Gloucester; Docksey, of Bathurst Road, Gloucester; and Ireson, of Benhall Gardens, Gloucester Road, Cheltenham, all deny a charge of conspiracy to defraud between April 2005 and October 2007.

The trial, which is due to last more than three months, continues.