Driving-test swindler used mobiles to help candidates cheat on theory section

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The Independent Online

The sticking plasters and strange hats and headscarves alerted staff in the theory section of Palmers Green driving-test centre in north London. So they called police, who uncovered one of Britain's biggest detected driving-test scams.

Yesterday the man behind the fraud was jailed for two years. Police believe Michael Babayan, 49, earned an estimated £200,000 by helping 400 people cheat their way through the theory part of the driving test. Candidates using his services came from Bradford, Manchester and Bristol.

The trick worked by Babayan, from west London, provided would-be drivers with the correct answers over a live, two-way link through a concealed mobile phone. The hands-free system was concealed underneath a headscarf or hat. When the candidate took the test they would request a "voice-over" service, which was a computer system that provided a foreign translation. To receive the service candidates would have to wear large headphones - under which they would hide the small mobile phone earpiece - and listen to the questions.

The con-artist had worked at the north London testing centre as an approved freelance interpreter but he was refused work in March 2001 for gross misconduct. He placed adverts for his services in community halls and even employed agents to recruit candidates. But he was caught red-handed when police raided his office as he was giving answers to a cheating customer.

He pleaded guilty to nine counts of obtaining or attempting to obtain property by deception at Wood Green Crown Court, north London. Six other defendants, including a bank clerk and a housewife, pleaded guilty to obtaining licenses by deception. They were fined and given community sentences.

Suspicion arose in July 2002, when staff at the Palmers Green centre noticed that an increasing number of people taking tests were wearing headwear. A police spokesman said: "The security team observed applicants enter 348B High Road, Palmers Green, a premises used by Babayan, dressed normally, and leave for the test centre wearing scarves and hats. At the test centre they were seen with wires and sometimes sticking plaster between their collar and ears.

"Later, these same people were seen returning to 348B High Road, and leaving without the additional clothing." On 10 July 2002, four candidates were spotted with wire running from their ears to the inside of their collars. Just eight days later, the wire leads were seen on three other men. The police mounted surveillance, using specialists from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The scam was traced to a property used by Babayan, which was raided in November last year, revealing numerous mobile phones, hands-free sets, a box of scarves and strips of Elastoplast.

Judge Linda Stern told Babayan: "You used your knowledge gained during your employment, abusing your trust to facilitate a well-planned and sophisticated operation, corrupting others and causing danger to the public for profit."

After the case, Detective Sergeant Brian Faulkner, from Enfield CID, said: "Babayan is believed to have accumulated £200,000 and assisted 400 people in obtaining the theory test certificates. This posed an obvious risk in that unqualified drivers were on the roads."