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Harlow estate agent escapes jail after confessing to £180,000 fraud

Communities / Sat 16th Aug 2014 at 07:55am

stephenpaulAN estate agent who walked into a police station and confessed to defrauding his clients out of £180,000 over a period of years has been spared jail reports the Harlow Star.

Instead, a judge at Chelmsford Crown Court placed Paul Stephen Onslow – who traded as Stephen Paul Estate Agents in The Stow, Harlow – on a six-month curfew and imposed a suspended prison sentence.

Onslow pleaded guilty to one offence of fraudulently abusing his position as the proprietor of an estate agency business in Harlow between April 22, 2008 and Apri 22, 2013 by using £43,736 of his clients’ money for his own purposes.

The prosecution explained the charge was limited to a fraud against 14 landlords although Onslow had told police he estimated the total amount of money involved was £180,000.

The court was told Onslow “robbed Peter to pay Paul” to keep his business out of financial difficulties when the recession hit in 2008. His firm went from selling eight to ten houses a month to none and he relied on his 40-50 letting clients.

Onslow looked after 89 rooms and 74 dwellings.

Samantha Lowther, prosecuting, said Onslow abused his position of trust in several ways. He failed to pay rent he had collected from tenants to landlords, he increased rents without informing landlords, he amended rental agreements and signed them on landlords’ behalf without their knowledge, he changed the bank account tenants paid into and he obtained an additional £70 key deposit from tenants without landlords knowing.

Miss Lowther said one landlord discovered that Onslow had rented out all four bedrooms of one property to different tenants while another was unaware that rent was not being paid into his account until his bank told him in March last year that direct debits to his mortgage lender and other creditors had been returned unpaid.

Miss Lowther said that when the previously successful house-selling business experienced financial problems Onslow relied on rental properties. At first he collected money at the beginning of the month and paid landlords at the end, but as the business went downhill landlords were paid later.

Onslow, of Yewlands, Hoddesdon, told police: “It’s not money I have hidden away. I was just robbing Peter to pay Paul so I haven’t physically got it.”

He started coming up with excuses not to pay,including one was that he had a brain aneurysm.

Robert James, representing Onslow, said in mitigation he was “clearly not a competent businessman” and had not enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle”

“He didn’t set out to defraud, he adopted a practice which was doomed to failure,” said Mr James.

None of Onslow’s clients or tenants had lodged a complaint with police, who were completely unaware of the fraud until Onslow confessed.

Imposing an 18-month prison sentence suspended for two years, with 250 hours of’ unpaid work and a six-month electronically tagged curfew from 9pm-6am ,judge Christopher Ball told Onslow it would be “significantly less harsh than being banged up in a prison cell”.

He said Onslow,who was of previous good character had avoided being sent to jail immediately because he had walked into Harlow police station in April last year to confess and had pleaded guilty to the charge.

“Rather than bow down to the inevitable because your area of work was devastated by the recession, you tried to trade your way out of it and in order to do that you deceived and cheated people entitled to money you were holding on to,” the judge added.

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