Feezan Choudhary is Britain’s biggest ever bank transfer fraudster
They called him ‘The Voice’, and Feezan Choudhary certainly knew how to profit from his gift of the gab.
By the age of 24, the son of Pakistani immigrants from Pollokshields, a diverse and relatively affluent neighbourhood of Glasgow, had already acquired all the trappings of turbo-fuelled wealth.
A natural show-off with a social media habit, he wasn’t afraid to flaunt them, either.
There was, for example, the fleet of supercars, including a Bentley, a Range Rover, a Rolls-Royce and a lime-green Lamborghini. Plus the global property portfolio, which included rental flats in Glasgow and Motherwell along with swanky holiday residences in Dubai and Lahore.
On Instagram, where he posed as a hot-shot music producer, 6ft 2in Choudhary cut a remarkable figure, dripping with gold jewellery (including a £48,000 Rolex watch) as he posted images of luxury hotel rooms and trips to favoured stores, including Harrods, where he once spent £98,500 in a single visit and carried such large wads of cash that staff mistook him for a celebrity.
His vanity knew no bounds. During a well-chronicled trip to the Middle East, he even paid for a professional photoshoot in which he stood atop a sand-dune, in gold-rimmed sunglasses and baroque-patterned Versace trousers, accompanied by a tiger.
Another time, to celebrate his engagement, he hired Bollywood star Bilal Saeed to headline at a glittering bash in Lahore. A film crew was hired to document proceedings, using aerial cameras mounted on a drone to capture him slipping a diamond ring on the finger of his dazzling fiancee Ayesha Nadeem.
Guests were then ferried around in a fleet of Porsche Cayenne SUVs, kept spick and span by Choudhary’s favourite team of car valeters who had been flown 8,000 miles from Glasgow to Pakistan for the weekend.
Extravagant: Feezan Choudhary’s social media posts included a photoshoot with a tiger
Observers of these (and other) preposterous displays of conspicuous consumption often wondered what was fuelling this lifestyle: the suspiciously young multi-millionaire did not, after all, boast any obvious source of legitimate wealth.
As it eventually transpired, they were right to smell a rat. For Feezan Hameed Choudhary was subsequently exposed as a criminal mastermind: Britain’s biggest ever bank transfer fraudster. As the leader of an audacious gang, with members across the UK, in just two-and-a-half years he managed to preside over the theft of an astonishing £113million from 750 hapless victims.
Choudhary created what police later described as a ‘Monday-Friday, 9-5 operation’ which saw them working in well-orchestrated teams that were ‘smashing victims all day, every day, and running their criminal business like a proper business’. At their height, they were stealing £2million a week.
Choudhary’s career, which ended when he was jailed in 2016, offers a chilling insight into not just the slick modus operandi of Britain’s growing army of financial scammers, but also the myriad failures of major banks and law-enforcement agencies that allow them to get away with it.
As yesterday’s Mail revealed, transfer fraud has roughly doubled in the past year alone, with bank customers now losing up to £1million daily.
A mere 20 per cent of the stolen money is being recovered, while shocking figures from Which? show that just one in every 25 cases reported to Action Fraud, the police’s under-resourced fraud and cyber-crime centre, are solved.
In another social media picture, he flaunted a Rolex watch and a lime-green Lamborghini
The true extent of this spiralling problem is likely to be even worse, since large numbers of victims are thought to be too embarrassed to report the crimes in the first place.
Against this sorry backdrop, two precious resources allowed Choudhary to build his ill-gotten fortune.
Firstly, he controlled a network of corrupt junior bank staff who were prepared to steal statements on his behalf. And secondly, he developed a priceless ability to sweet-talk the ordinary men and women named on those statements into revealing their internet banking details over the telephone.
Clever and highly articulate, Choudhary used a mixture of Scottish, Welsh and cut-glass English accents when calling victims, posing as a member of their bank’s fraud department who had spotted suspicious activity on their accounts.
To convince them he was genuine, he’d quote information gleaned from their private bank statements, detailing recent transactions, account balances and even the name of their relationship manager at their local branch.
He’d originally obtained those statements via crooked employees at a range of high street banks, who were paid £250 for each one they passed to him. Three of them, who worked for Lloyds, were subsequently convicted.
Once Choudhary had gained a victim’s trust – and with it the details required to access their accounts online – he’d keep them talking while a team of accomplices transferred large sums of money to a network of hundreds of UK accounts his gang controlled.
Suspiciously the young multi-millionaire did not boast any obvious source of legitimate wealth
These accounts, where the stolen money was deposited, were known as ‘mule’ accounts.
Some of them had been opened under fake names by the corrupt bank staff (again for a small fee). Others had been purchased from overseas students who’d finished studying at UK universities and had no further need for their British current accounts.
Soon after the stolen money landed, it was then either withdrawn from UK cashpoints in small tranches or transferred on to accounts in Dubai and Pakistan where large volumes of cash could be more easily laundered.
The more times Choudhary carried out his scam, the more audacious his methods became.
At one point he even installed a team of fraudsters in an upmarket room inside a £1,000-a-night suite at the May Fair Hotel in London.
Their ranks included an expert in telecoms ‘spoofing’ – a technique that allows fraudsters to display false caller ID numbers, to convince victims they were genuinely being contacted by their bank. The team also included an IT professional who made sure the computers they used were untraceable.
Together they worked for days at a time, and each time they completed a ‘hit’ they would destroy their pre-paid phone SIM cards and internet dongles (small devices that plug into a computer’s USB port and link it to the web).
One of the detectives who investigated the gang said: ‘He got better and better, and more and more confident. He’s got a very Scottish accent, but for the calls he put on a very soothing, professional English accent. He’s a very good career criminal, but the way he preyed on his victims was horrendous. It’s all down to pure greed. All the time he was just thinking about the money, not about the lives he was affecting and, in some cases, ruining.’
At one point he even installed a team of fraudsters in an upmarket room inside a £1,000-a-night suite at the May Fair Hotel in London
And Choudhary undoubtedly did ruin lives. His gang largely targeted independent tradesmen and small business owners, on the grounds that up to £100,000 could be withdrawn at a time from corporate accounts without automatically triggering bank security checks (for private accounts, the limit is smaller). Several of the companies were bankrupted, and one firm of solicitors lost more than £2million. One tradesman committed suicide after falling for the scam.
Among Choudhary’s victims was entrepreneur Des Dillon, who runs a small property company. ‘He told me someone in Aberdeen had got access to a [handheld] card reader and was attempting to use it to get into my account,’ Mr Dillon recalled.
‘I believed it because I’d ordered a new card reader and assumed it had been misappropriated. He was giving the impression it was a race against time to lock this person out. He was just so friendly, so talented, saying things like, ‘I’m here to protect your interests.’ ‘
Mr Dillon eventually lost £115,000. ‘I feel a total idiot but I was let down by the bank’s systems,’ he added. ‘The attitude at NatWest was just, ‘Tough luck. You were the one that was conned.’ ‘
While no two criminal gangs are identical, Feezan Choudhary and his team have several key features in common with other crooks who are profiting from Britain’s bank fraud epidemic. Police sources say almost every leader of the gangs currently active are believed to have personal links to Pakistan, a lightly regulated country where cash can be easily laundered, but which is nonetheless part of the IBAN (international banking) network, meaning money can be wired there at the drop of a hat.
In July, for example, another British Pakistani, Muhammed Azhar, was jailed for running a £1.8million scam from a house in north-west London. He led the technical side of the operation while accomplice Alexander Wood, a well-spoken conman with a previous conviction for posing as the Duke of Marlborough to rip off luxury hotels, was the front-man who actually telephoned victims.
A senior officer with knowledge of that case estimates there are currently ‘between three and five’ active gangs who are responsible for stealing the vast majority of the £1million a day being lost to the crime in the UK.
‘At the top end, they are almost all being run by British Pakistanis. The gangs have links between each other, and we believe they share the same laundering networks and in some cases are being taught how to carry out the crime by the same individuals,’ he says.
‘They tend not to be involved in other forms of crime, because this one is so lucrative and so low risk. The technical things you need to know are pretty easy to find out, and provided one or two members of your gang have the chat, which not everyone can master, you are away.’
Bringing them down would be ‘perfectly possible’, he adds, provided political will was mustered to target them.
Feezan Choudhary was brought to justice after a team from Falcon Taskforce, Scotland Yard’s Fraud And Linked Crime Online Taskforce, were instructed to focus on the rising transfer fraud epidemic. They spent six months investigating his gang, with support from 16 police forces.
When he was eventually arrested, police found more than £120,000 in cash, plus gold bars and a money launderer’s ‘toolkit’ containing more than 100 bank cards, complete with PINs, plus a selection of card readers, SIM cards, mobile phones and laptops. Of the £113million he stole, around £47million was recovered. Nineteen members of his gang were convicted, getting a total of 39 years in prison, while Choudhary himself got 11 years.
Yet despite this success, police cuts meant that Falcon Taskforce was disbanded not long after the trial was completed in late 2016.
Scandalously, no law-enforcement agency is currently being given resources to carry out similar investigations, which require extensive surveillance work.
So it goes that, while the fraudster they called ‘The Voice’ languishes behind bars, a host of equally prolific crooks continue plying their evil trade with virtual impunity.