Real Estate

UK fraud agency opens investigation into alleged £140mn property scam

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The UK Serious Fraud Office has opened an investigation into an alleged £140mn property fraud and arrested four people in a series of raids.

The prosecutor is probing Liverpool-based Signature Group, which bought up historic UK buildings to convert into luxury hotels and apartments before falling into administration, over suspicions it defrauded investors, the SFO said on Wednesday.

The agency made the arrests and raided three properties in Merseyside and Greater Manchester early on Wednesday morning, according to the agency’s statement.

The investigation is the fourth to be opened by the SFO since its new director took the helm in September. Nick Ephgrave, a former police officer, has said he wants the SFO to move faster on cases and borrow techniques from policing, such as covert tactics, to help the agency achieve better results.

“The scheme offered attractive returns and used much-loved local landmarks to lure investors,” Ephgrave said in a statement. “We have people up and down the country left out of pocket, and buildings left derelict at the centre of our cities.”

Signature’s property portfolio included Millennium House in Liverpool and a cruise liner that was marketed as a “flotel”, to be moored off London’s Canary Wharf and to travel to Ibiza. The scheme also secured investment to redevelop Belfast’s Scottish Mutual Building and the Coal Exchange in Cardiff.

The company operated for seven years and promised investment returns of between 8 per cent and 15 per cent, according to the SFO. Investors would loan the company money or purchase office space or hotel rooms based on the promised returns.

When the business collapsed in 2020 it had losses of up to £140mn, the agency said.

The SFO worked with the UK’s National Crime Agency to carry out the operation.

The new case follows a series of dawn raids and arrests carried out by the SFO in connection with the collapse of law firm group Axiom Ince in November, followed by an arrest and a raid on a site in London in connection with alleged fraud at AOG Technics Ltd in December.

The agency is also probing the collapsed funeral-plan provider Safe Hands Plans Ltd over suspicions of fraud, and it charged two former senior executives at Petrofac last week with bribery.

Kroll, which has been involved as an adviser in relation to Signature’s assets post-administration, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.