Advisers Face Sentencing Over £20M Pension Fraud

Two financial advisers who convinced hundreds of vulnerable pension holders to transfer their plans into a sham company in a £20mn con will face sentence next month.

Rikki Nicholls, 56, and Mark Kelly, 51, persuaded 285 victims to move their pension plans to their company PCD Wealth and Pensions (PCD) between September 2006 and April 2013, Southwark Crown Court heard.

Using introducers, they convinced pension holders to move their plans from underperforming companies into a self-invested personal pension scheme.

They went on to invest that money into risky investments without the pension holders’ consent, while charging them hidden fees and paying themselves hefty bonuses.

The fraudsters ploughed pension money into risky investments the policy holders knew nothing about, the court heard.

Nicholls and Kelly denied but were convicted of conspiracy to defraud and transferring criminal property after a trial lasting more than five months.

They will be sentenced on June 27.

Prosecutor Mark Fenhalls told the court: "In getting these pension holders to move their pension plans, various deceptions were made. Once they controlled the pensions these two invested the pensions into highly unsuitable products. Why did they do that?

"First of all, when they took control of the pensions they both gave themselves a hefty commission about which the pension holders didn’t know. Second, when they invested the pensions, they got another hefty commission.

"That is at the core. These two men put their own financial gain over the interests of the pension holders.

"They didn’t care about these people at all. All they cared about was the amount they could make from these people."

More than £20mn of pension money was transferred, with each fraudster making £1mn over the 18-month operation.

The money was then channeled through a series of bank accounts, jurors heard.

PCD, which was not registered in the UK, charged "inflated and concealed fees" and put the pensions at risk.

Equitable Life link

Most of the targets held pensions with Equitable Life, a company where things had gone "badly wrong" at the time.

"Equitable Life had not been trading for years and pensions were doing very badly.

"It is exactly the moment where a predatory financial adviser who knows what he is talking about can target people at their most vulnerable, and that is what Mark Kelly and Rikki Nicholls did," said Fenhalls.

The pair, who had previously worked for Equitable Life, took advantage of their "experience and understanding" as well as their access to confidential pension details.

They went on to invest the money into "unsuitable and risky" investments, without telling the pension holders what they were doing.

Introducers working on behalf of PCD would persuade pension holders to fill out partially completed forms stating they would not incur additional charges.

"Forms were sent out that were completed by these two afterwards, putting in fees which had not been agreed, which came straight from the values of the pensions," said Fenhalls.

"These two were repeatedly talking 4 per cent of the value of the pension funds."

Jurors were told that although the pair had created a system that kept them separate from their clients, Kelly was named as the financial adviser in most forms.

"Most of the people had never heard of him prior to discovering what had gone wrong," said Fenhalls.

"Their dealings were all with the introducers.

"The pension holders were cold-called on the phone.

"There is nothing wrong or unlawful about cold calling, so long as the people who are doing it got the information legitimately.

"Most of the people who received these phone calls formed the impression from the calls they got that their current pension holder, usually Equitable Life, provided their details."

The impression that their current pension provider had handed over their information properly lent a level of confidence in the scheme.

To hide the fraudulent nature scheme, the Sipp was being regulated by Hornbuckle Mitchell, a company that relied on the "integrity and competence" of PCD.

To regulate the financial adviser aspect, Kelly and Nicholls chose an offshore Cypriot company rather than a UK-based regulator.

During the trial an elderly and blind victim, Dennis Mountford, told jurors he was tricked into transferring his pension into a high-risk scheme after he signed forms he could not read.

Kelly, of Wilmslow, Cheshire, denied but was convicted of conspiracy to defraud and transferring criminal property, namely commission payments from pension holders, between July 2008 and December 2012.

Nicholls, of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, denied but was convicted of conspiracy to defraud and transferring criminal property, namely commission payments from pension holders, between October 2008 and March 2015.

NOTE: We claim no right or title to this article which appears in FT Adviser dot com.

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