Jail for South Norwood conwoman Neelam Desai, who sold people fake holidays and iPhones

Croydon Guardian: Neelam Desai was jailed at Croydon Crown Court this morning Neelam Desai was jailed at Croydon Crown Court this morning

A conwoman who pocketed £230,000 by duping holidaymakers into buying fake trips and selling iPhones that did not exist has been jailed for two-and-a-half-years.

Neelam Desai, 33, of Beulah Grove, Selhurst, ran a sham travel business from her home through which she lured victims into paying for "impossible" deals she knew she could not deliver.

When chased for debts by those she conned, she purported to repay them with worthless cheques from two stolen chequebooks, including her own mother's.

After being arrested over the travel fraud, Desai embarked on new scams while on police bail, advertising iPhones on listings pages but never providing them to buyers.

Prosecutor Kathryn Pitters told Croydon Crown Court on Monday that Desai's travel business, which she operated between December 2008 and March 2009, claimed to offer "magnificent and heavily discounted deals on flights and holidays."

Miss Pitters said: "The deals that the defendant was offering were extraordinary in their scope and attracted a great deal of interest.

"Those deals, however, were too good to be true - they were so heavily discounted that they were simply impossible for the defendant to deliver."

Much of the money obtained by Desai through the scam, likened by judge Stephen Waller to the infamous Ponzi scheme of fraudulent investment, was paid by Dhanji Asani, who made numerous bookings including some on behalf of family and friends.

After Desai told Mr Asani many of the bookings could not be fulfilled because she had run into financial difficulties, he agreed to loan her £150,000, eventually increasing to £175,500 in a series of payments.

In January 2009, Desai repaid £23,350 to Mr Asani, reassuring him sufficiently to book further trips through her.

But she never repaid the remainder of the loan, instead sending a cheque for £150,000, from her mother's account, which bounced.

Another victim, Paresh Shah, was asked to pay £10,000 into Mr Asani's account to help settle Desai's debt and was also sent worthless cheques in Desai's mother's name as supposed repayment.

Despite applying for bankruptcy on March 10, Desai continued to claim to offer travel deals under a fake name until being arrested at home on March 18 after being reported to the police by Mr Asani.

While on police bail, she advertised three iPhones on websites and in the newspaper Loot, receiving between £235 and £270 from each of three buyers, none of whom ever received the gadget.

She was again arrested after police linked her to the details on the adverts.

Desai pleaded guilty to five counts of fraud, three counts of handling stolen goods and engaging in business while bankrupt in March this year.

She perpetrated some of the offences while still completing suspended nine-month jail term for obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, imposed in February 2010 after she remortgaged her mother's house without her knowledge.

Abigail Penny, in mitigation, said Desai had been "essentially a very nice person, kind and giving, but then something changed in her" when her father died suddenly.

She told the court Desai was physically and mentally ill and had been duped into a "financially motivated" marriage with a man, leading to demands for money.

But Mr Waller said Desai had "lied to a lot of people" and could not escape an immediate prison sentence, jailing her for a total of 30 months.

Detective constable Lee Haslett, one of the officers who investigated Desai, said: "Desai was a serial fraudster and carried on committing fraud even when she was aware that she was being investigated by us.

"She will now be behind bars for a considerable time and we are now looking at making applications through the courts to confiscate any assets she has gained through criminal activity.

"This case also highlights the adage that if a deal on the Internet seems too good to be true, then it probably is."

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