Belfast woman 'used' by criminals in bank fraud avoids prison
A mother-of-two who acted as a mule for an organised crime gang has been spared jail after she admitted multiple frauds.
Handing Joanne Rice a suspended sentence, Judge Stephen Fowler QC told her he would have "no hesitation" activating the sentence and sending her to prison if she committed further offences in the next two years.
The 35-year old, from Norglen Parade in west Belfast, was described as a vulnerable woman with a heart condition picked on by an "original fraudster".
Prosecuting barrister Robin Steer said Rice pleaded guilty to 14 counts of fraud by false representation over a six-day period in 2016.
The M&S bank accounts linked to a customer were compromised on dates in August and September 2016, with the stolen £85,500 transferred into what the Crown described as "mule accounts", one belonging to Rice.
It emerged that the account holder had just deposited £50,000 inheritance into one of the accounts and was contacted over the phone by a man with a local accent who asked him about his account details.
On August 15, 2016, he contacted M&S to tell it £33,000 had been stolen from his account. He was fully reimbursed, but on August 16 more money was stolen. M&S again reimbursed the customer, who subsequently closed his accounts with it.
Regarding Rice, Mr Steer said that over a six-day period in September 2016 around £15,800 was deposited into her Danske Bank account, and that she withdrew almost the same amount in cash.
When she was arrested and interviewed on September 5, 2016, Rice admitted she had received funds into her account, and that she had withdrawn large sums of cash which she then handed over.
She also admitted spending the £2,000 she received for her role in the criminal enterprise on home decor, clothes and a trip to Dublin.
When asked about the original fraudster, Mr Steer said "he has never been identified... but clearly he knew her as he trusted her to use her account."
Defence barrister Joel Lindsay said his client was a vulnerable woman with a heart condition, and the mother of two children aged 11 and six months.
Pointing out Rice admitted her role to police during interview, Mr Lindsay said there was "clearly somebody in the background... who the money was being returned to".
The barrister said at the time of offending Rice was struggling financially, adding: "She did this and she did it foolishly."
He also spoke of Rice's remorse and said: "She is horrified that she became involved in this."
Judge Fowler said that while he accepted Rice was "manipulated and used" by an organised crime gang who targeted vulnerable people, the custody threshold had been passed.
Noting the age of Rice's youngest child, the judge said it was with a "very significant degree of hesitation" that he was suspending the 18-month prison sentence for two years.