Pension scam leaves victims in debt
Angie Brooks is leading a campaign to secure justice for victims of a pensions “liberation” scam Pic: Richard Pohle
Last updated at 12:01 AM, September 13 2014
Thousands of people have lost more than £500 million of their savings after being duped into taking part in unauthorised “pension liberation” scams. Experts say that the true figure runs into billions because many cases go unreported.
They also warn that next year’s relaxation of the rules governing how you can take your pension cash will provide a fertile breeding ground for fresh scams as fraudsters queue up to exploit the uncertainty around the new pensions regime.
Some of today’s victims fear they have lost their entire pension savings, while others say they have been driven to the brink of suicide.
The lure of pensions “liberation”
Savers were originally lured into transferring their pension pots by the promise of getting their hands on their retirement cash before the age of 55. However, many succeeded in “unlocking” only half of their pension pot, with the rest going partly into uncertain property investments, partly into cash and partly to the scheme’s promoters through hefty fees.
Savers were told that these schemes were legitimate but that was not true. Now many of the victims are facing financial ruin as they are being told to hand back the money they “liberated”, while Revenue & Customs is poised to slap on a tax penalty of 55 percent of the “unlocked” cash. In many cases, they simply do not have the money to pay.
The Ark schemes
Among the biggest “liberation” schemes were those created by Ark, a pensions consultant. These were marketed by financial advisers and so-called “introducers” in the UK and Spain. One of the main players was Stephen Ward, of Premier Pension Solutions (PPS), a Spanish-based company.
Angie Brooks, below, a former tax barrister, who is leading the class action on behalf of the Ark victims, says: “Mr Ward assured Ark applicants that it was lawful and tax-free and was approved by the Revenue and the pensions regulator. The Revenue registered the six Ark occupational pension schemes without checking for compliance. So did the pensions regulator. This understandably gave the Ark members the reasonable illusion that the schemes were lawful and approved by the UK government.”
The registration procedures have now been changed. She says that between September 2010 and May 2011, £25 million was transferred from personal and occupational pension plans into Ark schemes, for fees of up to 10 percent of the value of the transferred pot. More was transferred after this, bringing the total to £27 million.
PPS teamed up with AES International, a firm regulated in the UK, which gave PPS a tied agent agreement to operate in Spain under its regulation (though this did not authorise PPS to carry out pension transfers). PPS carried out at least 160 Ark pension transfers, totalling £10.7 million, with Ark taking a 5 percent cut of each transfer, PPS pocketing a further 3 per cent, as well as a slice of the Ark money, and AES receiving a 12.5 percent slice of PPS’s cut.
The schemes “unlocked” money by arranging for members to make reciprocal loans, worth about half the value of their pension pot, to each other. Many believed they would not have to repay these loans, known as Maximising Pension Value Arrangements (MPVA). The remaining half of their pension pots, after deduction of hefty charges, was partly held in cash and partly used to buy plots of land or timeshares.
Alarm bells started to ring in December 2010 when the Revenue expressed “concerns” over the lawfulness of the schemes, though it was not until May that they were suspended and a trustee — Dalriada — appointed. It embarked on litigation that resulted in the Ark schemes being declared invalid and the reciprocal loans judged to be “unauthorised payments” in the High Court in December 2011.
The cost to Ark victims
The judge’s ruling delivered a twofold blow to Ark members. First, Dalriada was enabled to demand back the money they had received as loans under the schemes. Second, since the loans were “unauthorised payments” the Revenue was entitled to levy a penalty charge of 55 per cent on these sums. The Revenue has not decided whether to tax the donors or recipients.
Dalriada has managed to recover more than £6 million of the £7 million which Ark spent on property investments. Sean Browes, of Dalriada, adds that it also has £9 million of Ark money in a bank account and is seeking to unscramble the £10 million of reciprocal loans. However, this has come at the cost of £800,000 in Dalriada’s fees and £1.9 million in legal costs.
According to Ms Brooks, Mr Ward has, since the suspension of Ark, been linked to pension liberation schemes which have attracted hundreds of fresh customers — something he denies.
He says: “PPS provided information regarding the Ark schemes in good faith based on the information and opinions provided by Ark and our own independent research. We included statements that independent financial advice should be sought and a number of people who did take advice found the experts they consulted agreed with our understanding of the position. We believe the damage has been caused primarily by the Revenue’s failure to take action when it first became aware of the schemes and by Dalriada’s fees.”
Sam Instone, the head of AES International, says: “We had nothing to do with the Ark scheme and we earned a negligible amount from our tied agency with PPS. We have no legal responsibility for what has occurred here.”
Craig Tweedley, who created the Ark schemes, says: “We took extensive advice about the validity of these schemes before launch. We were concerned when we learned that some introducers were claiming that the MPVA loans did not have to be repaid when a key part of our scheme was that they should.”
Dalriada says: “The Ark schemes were very unusual and have taken some time and, unfortunately, money to unravel. The members of these schemes have been scammed.”
Anyone with information about these pensions “liberation” schemes is invited to contact mark.atherton@ thetimes.co.uk
Be on your guard against scams
- Ahead of next year’s changes to the rules, one aspect of which means those aged 55 or over can take money from their pension, the scammers are gearing up to part you from your cash. Be on your guard
- If someone promises to help you take money from your pension pot before the age of 55 it is almost certainly a scam: you could lose the lot
- Even if you are over 55, do not deal with anyone targeting you by phone, text message or approaching you in person. Beware the words: ‘free pension review’
- Do not deal with anyone who is not registered with the Financial Conduct Authority for pension transfers