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At least seven or eight fairs and some antiques centres were targeted, with 24 victims identified by 13 police forces dealing with the con, from July to October last year.

Desmond Askew, 50, his brother Stephen Bond (also known as Askew), 52, and 53-year-old Kim Tyler, all of Dereham, Norfolk, appeared at Norwich Crown Court on September 23. Bond received six years and Askew four and a half, while Tyler was given 18 months, suspended for 18 months, and 280 hours of unpaid work.

Charges included fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, some related to a vehicle scam. 

DC Gail Morley, based at Kings Lynn police station, co-ordinated the police investigation after the scale of the offences became obvious. 

She told ATG: "They have known all the way along exactly what they are doing. They had among their property all the flyers for antiques fairs wherever they were, dates, times, and planned it out. They didn't care who saw them because they thought it had been going on for so long they got so blasé about it, and thought it was 'game on'."

It seems the fraudsters had set up a firm and went to garages saying they were looking at buying a fleet of vehicles, and could they test one for the weekend. They would then take these different vehicles to fairs so it would be difficult to trace them.

At the fairs, one man would be dressed smartly and gain the confidence of the dealer and another would then come up with the chequebook. One chequebook was actually in the name of one of the men, while another was for a company they had set up, but the accounts were closed down beforehand. Although the cheques could then, of course, be traced back to the conmen, they possibly took the risk that incidents would be considered as separate civil matters and the scale of the scam not discovered.

But dealers, particularly John Andrews, who contacted ATG about the matter last year, started to come forward and the fraudsters were identified at fairs.

After they were spotted in Leicestershire the vehicle details were noted down and by chance an automatic registration plate check in London picked it up - so all three conmen could be arrested at the same time.

The fraud totalled over £100,000, said DC Morley, and much of the property (ranging from a pocket knife and Moorcroft and Worcester vases to jewellery and diamond rings worth several thousand pounds) has not been recovered.

She added: "A lot of these victims are retired people and this was their pension; this is how they earn their livings nowadays, particularly the people who lost the jewellery. They said there's no point claiming on the insurance because of the level their excess started at. They had their lives turned upside down because I think it's more about the dignity side of it - their pride. They had spoken to the Askews, taken them on at good value and they have just been done over."