A young mum has narrowly avoided jail over her role in a sophisticated 'money mule' racket targeting bank customers.
Sunday Life can reveal that airport worker Louise Branney is one of 150 'money mules' nabbed by police in the scam which has seen organised criminals fleece hundreds of thousands of pounds from their victims' accounts.
Branney allowed £10,000 to be deposited into her account by what the judge described as a gang of "smurfs" who masterminded the fraud.
The 34-year-old received an 18-month jail sentence suspended for three years at Belfast Crown Court after she confessed to acquiring criminal property and eight counts of fraud by false representation.
She claimed to police that she "met a man in a pub called Sean" who asked for her bank details and who later turned up at her house.
Sunday Life can reveal that the mum-of-two spent almost two hours in the cells on Wednesday lunchtime after Judge Neil Rafferty QC said he wanted to consult with two other judges who previously handed other 'money mules' suspended sentences.
He said statistics showed that armed robberies and cash-in-transit heists had dramatically fallen as the risks were too high for criminals who had turned their attentions to bank account 'phishing' rackets.
"I am minded to impose a short custodial sentence in this case," said Judge Rafferty.
Airport worker Branney was carted off to the cells along with her dad Jim following an outburst from him in the public gallery in which he told the judge his daughter "had tried to borrow the money to pay back" her debt.
Ordering him to be taken into custody, the judge remarked that some people were treating his court like a "public bar".
"By and large I run my court like a court - this is not a public house," he fumed.
After lunch, the father and daughter were brought back to the dock in handcuffs by prison guards to hear their fate.
Judge Rafferty said that he had consulted with Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland and Judge Stephen Fowler QC about the way forward in sentencing money mules.
"We are now aware that this type of offending is heavily on the radar," he said.
"If you might kindly spread the word that going forward no one should assume that how cases have been dealt with in the past is indicative of how they are now going to be approached.
"The stage has now come where this type of offending is almost becoming a little bit of an epidemic and will attract deterrent sentences."
And he told Louise Branney's defence solicitor: "You will be delighted to hear that your client won't be the first."
The judge said that there was a public perception that members of the judiciary in Northern Ireland were "aloof and out of touch with ordinary people".
He added: "I can assure you that I have many pairs of jeans and trainers. No one is more in touch than the County Court judge who hears these cases coming through.
"It is now a developing trend where those who organise these schemes are using people like her as a necessary level of insulation in order to facilitate these financial transactions.
"It is of absolute note that none of the transfers that I have seen have exceeded £10,000 because the financial officer has to report those. The subsequent transaction will be £9,998 because you will not then tip off the red flags."
Quashing a potential contempt of court charge, the judge told Jim Branney: "I am satisfied from what I have heard that you are nothing but a desperately worried and a desperately concerned father about your little girl to your left.
"I'm a father myself and I understand those concerns."
Judge Rafferty branded Louise Branney's involvement in the bank 'phishing' scam as "foolish" but decided to suspend her sentence because of her guilty plea, her remorse and her clear record.
However, he warned from now on "people who allow the use of their bank details to perpetuate criminal frauds will go to prison. It's the only way to stop it."
Before letting her walk to freedom, the judge told her: "A little word of advice ... there is no such thing in life as a free lunch.
"If it looks too good to be true, by and large it is too good to be true."