Benjamin Wilson convicted on four counts after creating unauthorised futures trading fund to facilitate lavish lifestyle
A financial trader who swindled his friends and employees out of £22m has been sentenced to seven years in prison for a “cruel and sophisticated” confidence fraud that funded a lavish lifestyle.
Benjamin Wilson, 35, from Poole in Dorset, was convicted on four counts, including fraud and forgery, for creating a futures trading fund that was little more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme.
The fund, SureInvestment, drew in more than 300 victims, some of whom gave Wilson their life savings. In what the judge described as an “abuse of trust on a massive scale”, Wilson used his investors’ money to fund his love of fast cars, race horses and Las Vegas casinos.
Delivering sentence at Southwark crown court, the judge, Michael Grieve, said Wilson had committed “an utterly shameless fraud” that had wreaked “incalculable devastation” on his victims, many of whom were elderly or vulnerable.
Tracey McDermott, director of enforcement and financial crime at the Financial Conduct Authority, which prosecuted the case, said Wilson had acted out a charade against those who trusted and believed in him. “The FCA has objectives to protect consumers and enhance the integrity of the financial system,” she said. “Wilson being put behind bars contributes to us achieving both.”
Wilson, who first came to the attention of regulators in 2004 for running an unauthorised fund, promised investors average annual returns of 60%. In a glossy brochure featuring pictures of diamonds, mansions and speedboats, SureInvestment boasted that it did better for its investors than the stock market or bluechip City firms.
“In many ways it was ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ form of investing,” said Alan May, an FCA lawyer. Far from the trading genius he was reputed to be, Wilson had been “more of a trading Walter Mitty” who lost almost half the money he invested.
FCA investigators said they had rarely seen such an elaborate façade. SureInvestment had lavish offices in Poole. A champagne-stocked fridge, massage room and pricey modern art sculptures of a bull and a bear helped created the feel of a legitimate, thriving business. Donations to local sports clubs of £50,000 sealed the impression of a local boy made good.
In a statement read to the court, one of Wilson’s victims’ spoke of her anger at the betrayal of trust that had cost her family their £240,000 life savings. “We have been left with almost nothing. After spending 25 years of working hard to pay off the mortgage on a four-bedroom house we have been left with nothing to show for our work. I cannot tell you what a devastating impact this has had on us all.”
Speaking after the verdict, the woman, on the verge of tears, asked not be be named, saying many of her friends were unaware of her losses.
Another victim spoke of being forced to cancel retirement and return to work, against medical advice, saying: “It has been a life-changing experience for all the wrong reasons.”
Investigators have recovered £5.4m. Investors can expect to get back less than a third of their money.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by SureInvestment’s employees, several of whom also put large sums into Wilson’s fantasy futures trading.
Investors had no idea they were funding Wilson’s high-rolling lifestyle, which included a £4m house in Poole called Rhapsody. An estate agent’s plan shows five bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a gym and a sauna.
He drove a Lotus Elise and a Ferrari California. A deposit for another Ferrari had left his account when investigators swooped. In his free time, Wilson was often on the golf course or at the race track, watching his horses, Cash is King and Another Currency.
He paid £35,000 to a life coach, who arranged for him and his novice traders to go on a horse-whispering seminar. Holidays were spent in Las Vegas and Wilson sometimes treated his employees to a trip. On one of these jaunts, an employee recalls Wilson picking up the tab for a $37,000 (£22,000) drinks bill. The witness told the court that Wilson gambled so heavily on the slot machines and roulette tables that the hotel waived the cost of accommodation for his whole group.
But Wilson made sloppy mistakes, not least, misspelling the name of his company in his made-up accounts. His forgery was easily detected by investigators. The signature of his “auditor” was in fact that of fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett, which Wilson had apparently plucked at random from the internet. Presented with 50m signatures on Google Images, Wilson chose the very first one he saw.
Investigators said the case was complicated by Wilson’s skill in manipulating people. The Financial Conduct Authority, the FSA’s successor, said it wrote to Wilson’s investors in 2005 to check they had been repaid their money from Wilson’s unregulated fund. But Wilson persuaded the investors to confirm his story that all the money had been repaid, even though the fund kept running.
Meanwhile, he kept their money, telling them he had created a new fund in the British Virgin Islands that would be even more lucrative.
McDermott said it was not uncommon for people to be taken in by a charismatic figure, who told them “you are getting a good deal here, because you are pushing things at the [legal] boundary”. Asked whether the regulator could have done more, she said the FCA dealt with 5-6000 cases of unauthorised business each year and took a range of measures to warn people from investing in unregulated funds.
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