toCapita Oak pension scam: hundreds search for pensions they transferred after cold calls.
In a special You and Yours, we investigate a web of companies that sold millions of pounds of pension investments to hundreds of people – and has left many of them desperately trying to find out where their money has gone.
Liberating Pension Pots:
LIES, FRAUD AND FORGERY
STORE FIRST/CAPITA OAK/IMPERIAL TRUSTEES AND VARIOUS SIPPS
Shari Vahl – BBC Radio Four You And Yours 20.10.2014
Transcribed by Angela Brooks, Chairman – Ark Class Action 20.10.2014
(comments in bold by AB)
Store First is doing really well. Next year it is expected to open more of its self-storage warehouses. It has celebrities such as Quentin Wilson recommending people invest in its storage units. Wilson claims: “I’ll be honest, I like it so much, I’ve got one myself.” The BBC has spoken to some of the people who sold the Store First investments. They told Shari how they lied, as well as forged documents and signatures to make sure that pension money was moved from secure schemes into Store First. One salesman said: “I feel kind of sick to the stomach that I had transferred pensions from an elderly lady who completely trusted me. I played with her dog. She made me cups of tea. She gave me biscuits. I built trust with her. And I don’t know if any of these people ever received any money.”
The BBC’s You And Yours team devoted the entire programme to the thousands of people who invested millions of pounds in this one company: Store First.
“I was asked by listeners to look into two Liverpool-based pension funds which had gone horribly wrong. These were Capita Oak/Imperial Trustees (300+ members with total transfers of at least £10.8m) and Henley/Omni Trustees. £20 million of pension money had been invested in Store First but around 500 people hadn’t received the returns they were promised and now they can’t get their money. The two pension funds were wound up in the High Court in 2015 and the judge described them as “dishonestly disadvantaging pensioners and sold on the basis of false representation”. From the start, it was clear from the people who came to us that those two pension funds that the court wound up weren’t the only ones driving huge investments in Store First. I’ve discovered another much bigger one marketed by the same Liverpool sales team, sending all the funds raised to Store First – a chain of storage warehouses.
Alan: “I don’t suppose I’ll ever see that £140k again. I don’t want other people to fall into the same trap. Which they might do now with the new pension rules”. Lolita: “This is the most appalling scheme I have ever heard of. It is awful. It is actually costing me money now. I would never have agreed to this.” David: “I’m annoyed with myself but I am even more annoyed with the people who took it off me. £66k and I want it back”.
“Those are three of the listeners that came to see us: Alan, David and Lolita. They were promised big returns on their pension investments and access to a quarter of it, tax free when they reach 55. They were told their money would go into Store First in 2012/2013. He engaged a sales company in Liverpool to sell people the idea of investing their pensions into his company. What the investors would get was a physical storage unit or pod and the money raised from renting out that pod (to people who wanted to store their stuff) is how they get the returns. Or that was the promise. The Capita Oak victims were also given non-repayable, interest free “loans” of 5% of the value of their pension transfers by a supposedly non-connected company registered in Gibraltar called Thurlstone.
Quentin Wilson featured in the advert claiming a “guaranteed 8% for the first two years and up to 10% in years 3 and 4”. This was due to rise to 12% by year 6. So even people with secure, generous, final salary pension funds moved them into Store First.
Alan, an ex postman, paid into the Royal Mail pension scheme: “I had about £144k. These people came to me and said they could put it in a SIPP (Self Invested Personal Pension) and I’d get guaranteed returns on it”. These people were the sales team based in Liverpool. He believed the claims. “I looked on the Store First website and they were predicting the same thing. And then this guy Quentin Wilson doing a video about how it was the fastest growing market in the UK and predicted 85% profit in six years”.
Alan and hundreds of others like him were really interested and excited by this offer. Interest rates on savings were so low and they needed money. The salesmen said they had “frozen” pensions from their old jobs just sitting there. Lolita also took one of these cold calls from Jackson Francis – the Liverpool sales team. We’ve obtained a copy of the script they used for the phone calls and it shows the cold callers described themselves as “pension specialists”. Lolita was 36 when she signed up so she is much younger than Alan and she had £20k in a pension pot from her old job. Jackson Francis asked if she would be interested in taking control of that fund and she said yes, she would be prepared to re-invest it somewhere so that it would be working for her and give her a good pension. So she allowed Jackson Francis to transfer her old pension into a SIPP (really only suitable for people with lots of money to invest).
David Griffiths did the same thing with his pension which had taken 20 years to build up working as a van driver for the Birmingham Post and Mail. A salesman visited him and gave him a glossy booklet and told him it was a very good investment and many people had had their money back on it and the website looked kosher so he decided to go with it.
For a lot of people the promise of a tax-free lump sum was a big part of it and they could have got that out of their old pension schemes, but they didn’t know that and Jackson Francis didn’t tell them that. Other people just wanted to make their money work harder for them and get better returns. This has been researched by BBC Radio 4 for more than a year after being contacted by desperate people who had not received their lump sums at 55, couldn’t contact the Liverpool sales team and were very worried.
Several former Jackson Francis employees started to get in touch with the BBC and started to reveal what was really going on inside Jackson Francis. They believe that Alan, Lolita and David and hundreds of others were lied to and defrauded. One salesman said that the promise of getting 25% of the pension at age 55 was really the main bait. “A lot of people, especially over 55, were struggling and that tax-free lump sum would have helped them out”.
People who go into a SIPP are strongly advised to get independent financial advice. The cold callers described themselves as “pension specialists” and offered a free pension review and Alan thought he was getting good advice.
Under the rules, you can’t take out any part of a pension under the age of 55, and if you do move your pension pot, you should have a third party company regulated by the FCA in the middle to manage the pension pot for you. So who managed the Store First investment? A company in Leicester called Berkeley Burke (SIPP administration company) – unrelated to Store First and Jackson Francis and wasn’t paid by either of them but took on the majority of Jackson Francis clients – hundreds of them – and handled their investments into Store First.
Berkeley Burke was happy to facilitate the transfers provided the clients signed to say they recognised the investment was high risk. After a few months, Berkeley Burke wouldn’t take any more Jackson Francis clients unless those people had received independent financial advice. Jackson Francis approached an IFA called Keith Popplewell, experienced in pensions, who was paid to help them. They asked him to provide advice to their clients so he needed information from these clients but before he could give advice he needed Jackson Francis to do a questionnaire but he didn’t meet the people he was advising. He didn’t speak to them on the phone either. He just looked at the questionnaires returned by the salesmen and then wrote a financial report either recommending or not recommending they move their money into a SIPP.
This is where the allegations of fraud and forgery really begin. This is what one of the salesmen said about the so-called fact-finding questionnaires: “There was a series of boxes and you had to tick one. It went from low to high risk and we were told by our bosses that people needed to be at the higher end or there wouldn’t be a transfer. If the client didn’t want to be high risk, they were told they would have to leave the pension where it was. Another salesman reported it was more than just scaring people “When I was training I went out with one of the field agents. He filled in the form before he went into the client’s house and ticked the box to say the client did have an appetite for risk before meeting him. Clients did not see a copy of their reports. Keith Popplewell claims he never recommended anyone in a final salary scheme to transfer into a SIPP. Even clients whose reports said the pensions should not be transferred were still transferred and did not even see the report from Popplewell.
One salesman witnessed another salesman signing pensions transfer paperwork himself and filled in the fact-find questionnaire himself. Another salesman reported that this was routine and that the salesmen would sign the forms rather than the client. In other words, forging signatures. You would see them practising on a piece of paper until they got it right.
Jackson Francis was a “machine” that drove £100 million into Store First. The salesmen did not know about the level of commission paid by Store First. Over two years, Store First paid £33 million to a mysterious company called Transeuro Worldwide Holdings and it worked like this: every time an investment was received into Store First via the Liverpool sales team, Store First would pay Transeuro a commission of 30% or 46%. So when Alan put his £141k pension from the Royal Mail into a SIPP and that went into Store First, Transeuro was paid nearly £65k – 46% commission.
The government took Transeuro to the High Court to wind it up in the public interest after complaints from people who had been persuaded to move into two other pension funds also invested in Store First and millions of pounds are also missing from those pensions. Up until that court hearing, it was really hard to see who really ran Transeuro. It seemed to be based in Gibraltar and was shrouded in layers of nominee directors in the Caribbean and Central America and at the winding up hearing the court forced Transeuro’s solicitors to name the man in charge. That man is Michael Talbot who all the Liverpool salesmen believed was their boss. The man they described as having the big glass desk in the Speke office; the quiet man who hired and fired; the man with the chequebook.
But in a letter to the BBC from Talbot’s lawyers, he denied he ran the Liverpool sales operation or Transeuro Worldwide Holdings. He claimed his role was IT and databases and he told the BBC that at his garden gate in 2014. Talbot is 42, from the North of England and he used to be a nightclub promoter, married with two children.
Transeuro used £5m of the £33m they were paid to run the Jackson Francis operation and for buying in names of potential customers; they rented offices in Speke. Mike and Stuart would often roll up to the office in Ferraris and Rolls Royces, a Porsche, all owned by Store First. These offices were called Business First and Jackson Francis worked from there. Store First owned all the cars that the salesmen used to drive to visit clients and provided all the glossy brochures, and the product knowledge training for the sales team.
We can’t say that the investors have lost everything because they still are the legal owners of these storage pods. Quentin Wilson promoted the “exit strategy” as being able to “bail out at any time without cost and can sell to Store First who have a guaranteed buy-back scheme or you sell to another investor”. But Store First told one investor “on the fifth anniversary if you request for Store First to buy your pods back and if this is agreed then Store First have a further five years to complete the buy back”. And over that time you have to pay another five years’ fees and management costs. SF claimed it could organise an “in house” sale and sell the storage pods to someone else and make the original investor a profit of 25% but simultaneously offer a 25% discount on a new one. Why would anyone buy a second-hand unit for 50% more than a new one? It has been three years since Alan asked Store First to his sell his units and so far nobody wants them. Nobody has bought David Griffiths’ pods either.
BBC went to speak to Mike Burkey at Andrews Estate Agents in the Wirral and he said they had one on the market for £15k in February. They dropped the price in June to £9k as interest was minimal. The realistic price could be £5k and they charge a flat fee of £1k plus conveyancing fee of about £600. So after total fees of around £1800 the seller might walk away with £3.5k. Other estate agents tell the same story and one said they thought the investors had been “stung”. A major auction house had 9 pods for sale from the Blackburn site. The auctioneer started at £10k but there was not one single bid. No-one out of the 400 people in the room showed even a flicker of interest.
The original investors were shown a valuation by a chartered surveyor and the BBC asked him how he had calculated the market value and he said it was a sum based on how much rent the pod would generate. He was then asked where he got the rental figures and he said “Store First”. He was then asked whether he checked those figures to prove those rents were coming in and he said “no”. When the Capita Oak store pods were purchased in 2012/13, the solicitors used for the conveyancing – Metis Law – were specifically instructed not to get valuations for the pods they bought using £10m of funds from the Capita Oak members.
“As a matter of policy, Carey Pensions use a conservative valuation estimate for Store First storage units of 50% of the original purchase price in preparing annual SIPP reports”. This was a letter sent in 2015 to some Store First investors telling them their investment is worth half what they paid. When asked why the value of the investments had dropped so much they didn’t answer.
Store First claims it has 5,000 investors who have put £250 million pounds into Store First. Tom McPhail of Hargreaves Lansdown says the way these investments were sold was wrong because unregulated advisers were selling high risk investments with financial advisers signing off risk profiles that were inappropriate and then people buying into unregulated high risk investments and people who should never have been moved out of final salary schemes and unregulated investments shouldn’t be in the SIPPS at all in the first place.
The BBC tried to get in touch with the SIPP administrators Berkeley Burke, regulated by the FCA, but they didn’t respond. Carey Pensions did respond saying that they did do checks in line with FCA regulation and that they are happy. The Self Storage Association says that the figures that Store First are putting out are not viable and they got an independent report from Deloittes who confirmed the initial suspicions that the promised returns are unviable from a self storage business and there were two similar operations in Australia that failed and the investors were left out of pocket. There is very little, if any, market for re-sold units. Tom McPhail says there is very little avenue for compensation for the investors.
Quentin Wilson states he has asked Store First to remove the videos from their website and he has confirmed he has received no income from his pod.