A crooked agent who kept over £15,000 in holding deposits has been jailed for 19 months and banned from being a company director for five years.
Thirugnanaselvam Damayantharan, 53, conned his victims out of sums ranging from £300 to £1,449, in frauds relating to 33 tenancies.
He ran two firms in Croydon called See Own Properties and My Lawn Estates.
The case appears to highlight – yet again – the need for a legal mechanism that can shut down agents trading illegally overnight, in the same way that restaurants can be closed at once if they are deemed to represent a risk to the public.
Yet again, this latest case is also bound to elicit calls for at least some kind of basic entry standards for letting agents who, unlike sales agents, handle money.
My Lawn Estates was expelled by TPO in August 2015 for two years. It has been a mandatory requirement to belong to a redress scheme since October 1, 2014, so the case raises questions as to why a letting agent apparently trading illegally could continue to fleece the public.
It can also be revealed that, according to the local paper, Damayantharan was convicted of a similar offence in 2013. If that is correct, why was there no mechanism to stop him doing it all over again?
Now jailed, Damayantharan went on trial denying two counts of fraudulent trading relating to his two letting agencies. He changed his plea to guilty after some 20 of his victims gave evidence as to how he had taken deposits and failed to return them when the proposed rental fell through.
Passing sentence, Judge Peter Gower told Damayantharan the way he operated was “thoroughly dishonest”.
The court heard that in most of the cases, the move-in date for properties came and passed without the prospective tenants being supplied keys.
When they repeatedly tried to get their money back, Damayantharan would give excuses before eventually breaking off contact.
Sometimes he would say the landlord had decided not to let to the tenant, or he claimed money had been held up with a referencing agency.
In some cases, holding deposits were taken from different people for the same property. He also took deposits on properties on which he had not been instructed.
Judge Gower told Damayantharan: “Before you changed your pleas, the court heard evidence from more than a dozen prospective tenants. All painted a similar picture.
“You were quick and efficient at relieving them of their money, if necessary by driving them, there and then, to cashpoint machines. Some have spoken of being made to feel rushed.
“Thereafter, they found it increasingly difficult to make contact with you, as the time for commencing the tenancy in their home grew ever nearer. A variety of different excuses were put forward by you as to why they were not able to move in.
“Only one prospective tenant managed to get back the whole deposit, but it took a considerable time and a great deal of persistence. The majority got nothing.
“The way you operated was thoroughly dishonest.”
The prosecution was brought by Croydon Council’s Trading Standards team.
Cllr Hamida Ali, Croydon Council’s cabinet member for communities, safety and justice, said: “This is a dreadful case of fraud, leaving dozens of his clients out of pocket and, in some cases, facing the possibility of homelessness.”
EYE has asked Croydon Council for further information on this case, including as to whether it knew of the expulsion by TPO, and about the earlier 2013 case.
Yesterday evening, TPO confirmed that My Lawn Estates had been expelled because of non-payment of an award made against it, and compliance breaches. The firm is said to have tried to rejoin TPO before its two-year ban was up, but was not allowed to do so.
Ombudsman Katrine Sporle said: “TPO always notify Trading Standards of an agent trading illegally, and were aware that Croydon Trading Standards were working hard to bring a case against him, which has obviously happened. We should be praising the regulator, demonstrating that redress schemes give early warning of non-compliant agents.”
As the law stands, should Damayantharan be placed on a blacklist of agents later this year, members of the public will not be able to access it.