Trio jailed for 'fraud factory' scam

By Laura May,Press Association
Friday 03 August 2012 04:31

An Indian solicitor and two women who both claim to be his wives were jailed today for the roles they played in the biggest visa scam ever seen in Britain.

Jatinder Kumar Sharma was sentenced to seven years and Rakhi Shahi was jailed for eight years for running a fraud factory where they helped hundreds of immigrants apply for visas using bogus documents and false identities.

Neelam Sharma was given a four-year term for money laundering after being found guilty of handling some of the hundreds of thousands of pounds which poured into the business. But the former teacher was cleared of conspiracy to defraud and immigration offences.

All three live together in Clarence Street, Southall, west London, and, while Neelam Sharma married Jatinder nearly 20 years ago, a marriage certificate appears to show that he also recently married Shahi.

Police say both marriages took place in India and the second would be illegal under Indian law.

Shahi and Jatinder Sharma ran an immigration consultancy business known as Univisas and amassed a mountain of 90,000 documents including false university certificates, fraudulent academic records, bogus bank statements and payslips.

They also kept passports, 50 different types of headed notepaper and 150 ink stamps which were all used to create fake documents to support visa applications.

Passing sentence at Isleworth Crown Court, Judge Richard McGregor-Johnson said the pair had exploited "weaknesses" in the checks made by the Home Office.

"Various criticisms have been made of the actions of the agencies responsible for checking those documents. Those criticisms are plainly well founded in my view. The checks were woefully inadequate and frequently non-existent.

"You saw the weaknesses in those systems and dishonestly exploited them."

The court had earlier heard that Home Office employees had failed to spot that employment certificates from across India were almost identical and that wage slips did not add up.

In some cases students appeared to have attended two full-time courses simultaneously, many people gave an identical address on their application and one appeared to change sex midway through the process.

The UK Border Agency, Home Office and office of the Immigration Services Commissioner were among the organisations which came in for a barrage of criticism during the case.

Police suspect more than 1,000 people, the majority of whom came from the Indian sub-continent, used the business to cheat border controls. However, of the 960 cases about which the police seized files from the business, only 81 clients have been identified and traced and just 41 have been removed from this country, the court heard.

The case highlighted continuing fears that bogus colleges have been used as an illegal gateway into Britain for thousands.

Among those who used a similar scam were eight of the 10 Pakistani terror suspects arrested earlier this year during raids in Manchester and Liverpool and who now face deportation.

Shahi, 31, was sentenced to eight years for her part in the conspiracy, five years for helping launder the money the business made and six months for using false documents to enter this country.

Sharma, 44, received seven years for his part in the conspiracy, 18 months for stealing ink stamps from companies where he had previously worked, four years for money laundering, nine months for one charge of deception and 12 months for using a false passport to enter the country.

All the sentences will run concurrently.

The Univisas operation was only uncovered when a newspaper reporter secretly recorded Sharma offering to supply false documents to him for £4,000.

The journalist, who was working for the Ealing Gazette, caught Sharma claiming that he could obtain any piece of paperwork for the right price.

He said: "They in the Home Office do not even bother to look at your documents, they don't care what documents you have sent, they just stamp them blindly."

Judge McGregor-Johnson said: "You are all intelligent, educated people but you put that to dishonest, criminal use.

"The conspiracy concerned a carefully planned professional organisation that continued for two years and would clearly have continued beyond that had the police not acted on what was a smart piece of investigative reporting."

He said that Sharma, who is still listed on the roll of solicitors in this country and possibly in India, was "completely unfitted to be a member of that profession".

The judge said he hoped that his remarks would be noted by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority.

He also recommended that all three defendants be deported at the end of their sentences.

The police officers and the legal team involved in preparing the case came in for praise from the judge.

He said: "It has been extremely well executed and has enabled the legal team to do their job properly."

Detective Chief Inspector Bob Hoey, who led the investigation, said: "It was an incredibly complex investigation and I pay tribute to the painstaking work of everybody involved in this investigation to stop this conspiracy in its tracks."

UK Border Agency regional director Tony Smith said: "The tough sentences handed down today demonstrate our determination to tackle those who commit organised immigration crime and bring the perpetrators to justice.

"This was one of the largest joint investigations ever undertaken by the UK Border Agency and police.

"We believe we have cracked a major international conspiracy to facilitate the entry of illegal immigrants into the UK. Those behind it showed total disregard for the law, and their motives were purely financial.

"We will continue to work shoulder to shoulder with the police and other enforcement partners to identify criminal activity and stamp out any abuses of the system."