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Landlords owed thousands by estate agent find no way to get money back

PUBLISHED: 06:31 03 September 2018 | UPDATED: 14:23 03 September 2018

eHomes owner and director Victoria Steele. Landlords say they are owed thousands of pounds by her company. Photo: Archant

eHomes owner and director Victoria Steele. Landlords say they are owed thousands of pounds by her company. Photo: Archant

©Archant Photographic 2010

Police have launched a fraud probe after an estate agent disappeared owing thousands of pounds.

An EDP investigation in June 2018 revealed landlords were owed thousands of pounds by the estate agent eHomes in Swaffham. Image: ArchantAn EDP investigation in June 2018 revealed landlords were owed thousands of pounds by the estate agent eHomes in Swaffham. Image: Archant

But frustrated victims said detectives had not contacted them despite reporting the allegations to national hotline Action Fraud more than three months ago.

Around 40 people and groups, including a landlord recovering from cancer and a Methodist church, claim they are owed money by Swaffham estate agent eHomes Limited.

An investigation by this newspaper in June found landlords had not been paid rent by eHomes and tenants’ deposits had not been secured in protection schemes as required by law. It left some of them thousands of pounds out of pocket.

The firm’s director and sole shareholder Victoria Steele has not replied to any of our requests for comment and is rumoured to have gone abroad.

Creditors are also chasing Mrs Steele and her firm for almost £40,000 through the courts.

Landlords, meanwhile, complained to Action Fraud, which is meant to pass reports on to local police forces. But they are frustrated about the lack of progress.

Less than one per cent of reports made to Action Fraud by people in Norfolk ended in court action in 2016/17 - four out of 460.

Some of those who have lost money have not heard anything since reporting it to Action Fraud apart from a holding email.

The eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian BurtThe eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian Burt

Others have received an email explaining Action Fraud is under pressure which is why it is taking time to progress.

Only two of the landlords, spoken to by this newspaper, have been contacted by police.

Hazel Wood, 69, who is recovering from breast cancer, said she lost deposits worth £1,300 for two Swaffham properties she rented through eHomes.

They had not been put in protection schemes which meant she had to pay the tenants back herself.

Matthew Green at his premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian BurtMatthew Green at his premises in Swaffham that was rented to eHomes. Picture: Ian Burt

She said: “I contacted the police who told me to report it to Action Fraud on May 25.

“As I had no response or update for a month I contacted the police again and was advised they could do nothing as it was in the hands of Action Fraud.”

On July 2 she had an email from Action Fraud saying her report was still under review.

“I do not believe that any progress has been made,” she said. “I feel let down.”

The eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian BurtThe eHomes office in Swaffham has shut. Picture: Ian Burt

Matt Green, 34, rented his shop on Station Street to eHomes and the company also let a house for him. He said he was owed rent on the shop as well as a deposit from the house, leaving him more than £4,000 short.

He also complained to Action Fraud but got an email back stating there were delays processing complaints.

He has, however, spoken to King’s Lynn CID about the shop.

Norfolk police confirmed there was an ongoing fraud investigation but would not comment further.

Landlord Trevor Hucklesby has heard little back from Action Fraud or Norfolk police since reporting the alleged fraud. Picture: Ian BurtLandlord Trevor Hucklesby has heard little back from Action Fraud or Norfolk police since reporting the alleged fraud. Picture: Ian Burt

Trevor Hucklesby, from Great Cressingham, said he was also owed around £4,000 after his tenants’ deposits were not registered in a protection scheme by eHomes.

Since reporting it to Action Fraud, the only contact the 66-year old has had back was an email from Norfolk Police offering him a “support service” for fraud victims.

People owed money can get county court judgements (CCJs) against the debtor to try to get their cash back.

Karen Barnaby, 32, who lives in Portsmouth, obtained a CCJ against eHomes in July for more than £2,000.

She was owed money after having to pay out deposits to tenants when they were once again not put in a protection scheme.

She has not received a penny and is now hiring bailiffs. “I’m still hoping I will get the money back,” she said. “I reported it to Action Fraud but all I got was an email saying they were sorry about the delay and they would be looking into it.”

Derek Rogers, 63, from Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex, said he took out a CCJ for £1,120 against Mrs Steele after also hearing little back from Action Fraud.

He was not paid two months rent for the home he was letting through eHomes in April and May.

But Mrs Steele has not responded to the CCJ. “I will look at next steps but I don’t hold out much hope,” he said.

People chasing eHomes for money have taken out eight CCJs, worth a total of £18,400. That includes six CCJs this year, one last year and one in 2015. None have been paid.

Creditors have also gone to court to pursue Mrs Steele for debts worth almost £20,000. One unsatisfied CCJ from February 2017 states Mrs Steele owes them £16,500. A second one from this June is worth £3,490.

•‘Nobody wants to know’

Landlords say they feel ignored after contacting Action Fraud, MPs and the police about their problems with eHomes.

Hazel Walker, 69, said she lost £1,300 in deposits eHomes failed to secure.

She has contacted Action Fraud, Norfolk Police, her MP George Freeman and Swaffham’s MP Elizabeth Truss.

But she said she had been going around in circles.

Norfolk Police will not deal with her complaint until it is referred to them by Action Fraud, but that has not happened despite her reporting to Action Fraud in May.

Ms Truss’ office told her to contact Mr Freeman, but she is yet to hear anything back.

“Nobody wants to know and nobody cares,” she said.

An Action Fraud spokesman said the reports regarding eHomes were assessed by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau at the City of London Police which found there were “insufficient lines of enquiry for an investigation based in the UK”. “The international nature of fraud poses difficulties in tracing payments and suspects,” they said.

Norfolk Police confirmed they had an ongoing fraud investigation into the case.

•How was money lost?

Some of the money landlords say they are owed by eHomes is from tenants’ deposits.

Deposits are meant to be protected by law with one of three Government-approved schemes.

The schemes are the Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS), Deposit Protection Service (DPS) and My Deposits.

If an estate agent goes into liquidation, the tenants’ deposit would be protected.

But if a landlord or agent has taken a deposit without registering it, there is little which can be done.

In the case of eHomes, it acted as an agent and took deposits from tenants.

But landlords later found out that some of these deposits had not been secured.

It means the landlord is liable to pay the tenant the money back.

All of the landlords spoken to by this newspaper have done that which has left them thousands out of pocket.

•Contact Norfolk Police on 101 to report any issues about this case

•Follow the latest from our investigations unit on Facebook

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