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FAKE golf clubs and other goods worth millions of euro were sold to eBay customers around the world in the largest fraud of its kind, a court has heard.
Most were made in China and then distributed through an international network of criminals.
The four-year plot was described by the Crown as being of a “truly global nature” and “on a scale that it is believed has never been seen before”.
Adam Davies, prosecuting, explained: “Nearly every major golf brand has been affected by the sales of counterfeit goods through eBay accounts.
“It is the belief of the fraud investigation unit at eBay that this case represents the single largest counterfeiting conspiracy yet uncovered on their website.”
Whenever officials at the online auction sites became suspicious and closed accounts, either fake invoices were used to allay concerns and get them re-instated, or new ones were opened.
The barrister told London’s Snaresbrook Crown Court the lucrative enterprise saw “large sums” continually being transferred between various accounts run by self-confessed mastermind Gary Bellchambers in Britain and Thailand.
One received £73,000 (about €80,000) in just a month.
He said despite the “counterfeiting empire’s” continent-spanning reach, its downfall was triggered by pensioner Christine Manz who bought a couple of the counterfeit Acushnet golf clubs from Bellchambers.
Having decided she and her husband “weren’t happy with their quality” she asked for a refund.
But jurors were told because Bellchambers was abroad her letters went unanswered — “a rarity in this case because as you can imagine it would be in the [conspirators’] interests to make sure there were no complaints”.
So she contacted the trading standards office in Havering, east London.
The local authority began investigating, launched Operation Augusta and raided a string of addresses.
Among them was Bellchambers’ home Dunedin Road, Rainham, Essex.
Mr Davies said a “large quantity” of golf clubs was seized. All were fake, apart from those that belonged to him.
The home of co-defendants Roy and Kay Cottee was also searched. There, investigators found 1,528 fake clubs and a garden shed transformed into a storage depot. As the full scale of the conspiracy emerged more raids followed.
In the dock are Roy Cottee, 65, and his 43-year-old wife, Kay, both of Thorn Lane, Rainham, Essex; Mark Kent, 46, of nearby Martin Drive; Sharron Williams, 48, of Riverside Walk, West Wickham, Kent; Simon Eden, 44, of The Elms, Hertford, and Helen Wilson, 28, of The Knoll, Hertford.
All six deny one count of conspiracy between December 1, 2003, and March 30 last year.
In addition, the Cottees plead not guilty to two other conspiracy charges.
Opening the three-month trial Mr Davis insisted: “These defendants and their co-conspirators have been responsible for the sale and distribution of hundreds of thousands pounds, maybe millions of pounds, worth of counterfeit goods both in Britain and abroad, primarily through the well-known auction website eBay. This is a conspiracy of a truly global nature.”
The conspirators are thought to have been based in Britain, Thailand, Australia, Germany, Singapore, the United States, Hong Kong and China.
“And goods have been distributed from or to all those countries and more; across the length and breadth of the UK — West Yorkshire, Wales, Dorset, Birmingham, Belfast, Aberdeen, Herefordshire, Berkshire, and in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, Australia, the USA, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Brazil and New Zealand.”
The trial was adjourned to today.
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