An Indian-origin businessman who ran an unauthorised money-lending service in the UK has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of crimes under the country's financial regulations.
Dharam Prakash Gopee, charged under the the UK's Consumer Credit Act 1974 and the FinancialServices and Markets Act 2000, has also been issued with a Serious Crime Prevention Order (SCPO), which will severely restrict the 64-year-old's ability to carry out any illegal money-lending activity in future.
The UK's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said this was the first case where it had sought such an order, which underlines the seriousness of the case.
"The court is sending a very clear message that deliberate and repeated offending will lead to long periods of imprisonment. The FCA will continue to take whatever action is necessary to bring offenders to justice and protect consumers," said Mark Steward, Director of Enforcement and Market Oversight at the FCA.
Between 2012 and 2016, Gopee acted as an illegal lender despite being refused a consumer credit licence by the UKs Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and failing to secure authorisation from the FCA.
According to the FCA, he loaned money to vulnerable consumers at high rates, securing the loans against their property, and then sought to take possession if they failed to pay.
Over the four-year period, his own loan books showed that he issued approximately 1 million pounds of new loans and took in at least 2 million pounds in payments from old and new consumers, none of whom were aware that he did not have a licence.
In sentencing Gopee, Judge Beddoe noted at Southwark Crown Court in London last week that Gopee was aware of the regulator's serious concerns, but ignored them, deciding instead to "deliberately flout the law".
He continued to pressurise debtors with demands for payment, threatening court action that he knew could not be sustained.
Commenting on the defendant's activities as a whole, the judge said that Gopee's business practices "exploited the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of many, many people" who were unaware that their trust in him was misplaced.
He described the scheme constructed by Gopee as involving one contrivance after another in an attempt to get around the law, showing "a horrid pattern of exploitation".
The Serious Crime Prevention Order will begin on Gopee's release from custody and will last for five years. It includes conditions prohibiting him from conducting any business in the credit sphere, limits the number of bank facilities he is permitted to operate, and requires him to make disclosures of those banking facilities to the FCA.
Breaching the terms of the order is a criminal offence, punishable by upto five years' imprisonment.
Gopee had already been banned from acting as a company director, having been disqualified in May 2016 for the maximum period permissible of 15 years under the UK's Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.
A number of his companies have already been wound up in the public interest following proceedings by the Official Receiver, and he has also been the subject of a restraint order obtained by the FCA in June 2015 under the UK's Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
Following the lifting of a reporting restrictions, the FCA revealed that it had to bring two sets of proceedings against Gopee for contempt of court in relation to repeated breaches of that restraint order.
In April 2016, having denied various breaches - including failing to disclose assets, continuing to deal with assets, opening and using new accounts - Gopee was found to be in contempt and imprisoned for a term of 18 months. He was released early by the court in September 2016, having promised to comply with the order. However, he went on to commit various additional breaches.
Further proceedings were therefore brought against him, and on this second occasion, having admitted the new breaches he was imprisoned for a term of 15 months in October 2017, in the lead up to his criminal trial this month.
Gopee continues to serve his 15-month jail term for contempt, and his sentence for the recent offences will begin after that term has been completed in June.
Proceedings have now also begun at Southwark Crown Court in London to confiscate the proceeds of Gopee's criminality.
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