The 'Key to a Fortune' pyramid scheme queens who conned 10,000 out of their savings

Organisers used mass emails to sign up victims in ‘get-rich-quick’ investment con

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The Independent Online

A band of middle-aged women masterminded a £21m get-rich-quick pyramid scheme that fleeced at least 10,000 victims out of their money, a court has ruled.

Eleven women aged between 34 and 69 used mass emails and invitations to “champagne celebration nights” to encourage other women to “beg, borrow or steal” £3,000 to invest in their scam. They have become the first in the UK to be prosecuted for such a scheme under new legislation.

Named Give and Take (G&T) or Key to a Fortune, the scheme quickly spread from Bath and Bristol to the surrounding areas of Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Wales between May 2008 and April 2009.

G&T was kept under a veil of secrecy as members were forbidden from writing about it to protect the organisers. But the pyramid was uncovered when a disgruntled employer in Bristol complained to Trading Standards that it was being promoted in his workplace.

Victims were lured by the promise that they would receive a £24,000 payout when they reached the top of their pyramid chart, with organisers promising they “could not lose”.

The scheme operated on pyramid charts with 15 spaces – each space filled with a participant who paid £3,000 and introduced two friends who also paid that amount. Once the chart was filled, the eight people on the bottom rung of the chart paid their £3,000 to the person at the top, called the “bride”.

Committee members behind the scheme pocketed up to £92,000 each, while as many as 88 per cent of their victims lost between £3,000 and £15,000.

Six of the women have been sentenced, while a further three will be sentenced at Bristol Crown Court next month. One woman was acquitted of promoting the scheme, while two juries failed to reach a verdict for another woman on the same charge.

Judge Mark Horton, who had banned reporting of the case until yesterday, said: “This particular scheme caused a loss to the general public of around £19 million. A number of these women suffered enormous and in some cases lifelong financial hardship due to their involvement in this scheme.

“The public need to be aware that schemes like this lead to the destruction of lifelong friendships and families and in some cases whole communities.”

Chart co-ordinator Mary Nash, 65, committee secretary Susan Crane, 68, and games co-ordinator Hazel Cameron, 54, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges of operating and promoting the scheme. The women were due to face a retrial, after a jury failed to reach verdicts in their cases in 2013.

Three other women – Sally Phillips, 34, Jane Smith, 50, and Rita Lomas, 49 – admitted in 2012 to promoting the scheme. Phillips received a three-month suspended prison sentence, Smith a four-month suspended sentence and Lomas a four-and-a-half month suspended sentence.

Another three women – chairman Laura Fox, 69, treasurer Jennifer Smith-Hayes, 69, and venue organiser Carol Chalmers – were convicted of operating and promoting the scheme in 2012. They were each sentenced to nine months in jail and have served their sentences.

No verdict was reached following two trials of Tracey Laurence, 60, while Rhalina Yuill, 34, was acquitted of promoting the scheme at her second trial.