County Durham travel agent fraudster Lyne Barlow faked cancer after conning people out of holidays

A fraudster who pretended to have terminal cancer after conning hundreds of people out of holidays has been jailed.

Police have been investigating scammer Lyne Barlow since 2020 after people who thought they had booked holidays with her realised she was in fact conning them.

Barlow has been jailed for nine years after defrauding more than 1,400 customers, which the value of the con estimated by Durham Police at about £1.2m.

Jailing the 39-year-old on Friday, 3 February, Judge Jo Kidd told Barlow she had “an extraordinary talent for dishonesty” after hearing that she had stolen more than £500,000 from her own mother following the death of her father in 2015.

She sold luxury holidays at knock-down prices but was funding the sales in a ponzi-style scheme by bringing in new customers to fund existing ones.

The mother-of-two also told people she was suffering from cancer – even wearing a headscarf and using a walking stick to convince people she was seriously ill - to deflect complaints when she was contacted about missing booking references.

Barlow had even cut off some of her hair and left it on her pillow to convince her family she was ill and also got family members to take her to the hospital so she could supposedly attend appointments.

Durham Police released footage of Barlow hobbling into the station using a stick before being confronted about having cancer

In one email to a customer, she told them she had reached stage "three/four" and would no longer be able to take on new clients.

She had written: "I’m not stopping working with current bookings, just not taking new ones.

"Unfortunately I’ve just found out my cancer has spread and it’s gone to stage three/four it’s in my bones and need to have chemo into spine to stop it from getting to my brain. It’s going to be pretty intense.

"I obviously don’t want to pick and choose who to do holidays for so just decided I wouldn’t be doing any new ones."

When someone passed their sympathy to her, she replied: "Thank you, yes we have only just found out and very worrying times for us as a family, and just needed to take some pressure off me to be honest so I can concentrate on getting well again."

Police released footage of her pretending to need a walking stick to walk into the police station before she is asked to remove her headscarf to reveal her hair.

Officers also released some of the phone calls made to Durham Police as people started to realise they had been victims of fraud.

Lyne Barlow hid her face as she arrived at Durham Crown Court, where she was sentenced on Friday 3 February. Credit: PA

Durham Police said the case was the force’s biggest-scale fraud.

Detective Sergeant Alan Meehan, of Durham Police's economic fraud unit, said: "Fraud is a horrendous crime and Barlow's actions were appalling.

"She made a conscious and deliberate decision to do what she did. There were points at which she could have put a stop to it all, but she carried on and now she is paying the price for her actions.

"Sadly, so many people have been affected by what she did, lives have been changed forever and some will never be the same again.

"Not only did Barlow offer holidays she could not deliver, but she also took advantage of the generosity and understanding of those around her, which has resulted in such far-reaching consequences.

"She wanted a quality of life she could not afford, which resulted in her defrauding her family, friends and even complete strangers."

Barlow, 39, previously of Stanley, County Durham, was investigated by police after her victims came forward in 2020 to say they had not received the holidays they had paid for.

Appearing at Durham Crown Court, she admitted stealing £500,000 from one person, 10 counts of fraud and a money laundering charge totalling £1,688,220.

Some of the emails exchanged between Lyne Barlow and customers, where she told them she had cancer. Credit: Durham Police

Durham Police said previously Barlow’s travel business was no longer operational, and its social media page was taken down shortly after her arrest in September 2020.

It is believed problems started in 2015 when her family died suddenly. Offering to help with the family finances, she pretended to be a family member to access bank accounts and intercept post-removing money.

Barlow encouraged family and friends to "invest" their savings and pension payouts, promising them they would likely see a six-figure return which never materialised.

Some money was to pay for foreign holidays, designer clothes and lavish parties.

'Ponzi' style scheme

Formerly employed as a travel agent, Barlow set up her own business, Lyne Barlow Independent Travel, in November 2019.

The 39-year-old quickly gained a reputation for being able to provide holidays at the cheapest price – and also told customers she was ATOL and ABTA protected.

News of her offers spread and dozens of satisfied customers left 5* reviews on the holidays they had received.

In total, 450 fraud-related crimes were recorded, affecting 1,400 people and thought to be worth in the region of £1.2m.

Barlow lured customers in with her attractive deals, offering discounted rates to her customers.

However, she often just used websites available to the public to book the trips. The discrepancy in price means she used money, which was either her own or borrowed from friends and family, loaned from the bank or using funds from previous holidays to pay for them.

New bookings were used to fund existing holidays.

In many cases, people ended up with shorter trips, or without return flights - only realising when they arrived at their destinations, leaving them stranded.

Some holidaymakers only discovered when they reached the airport that they did not have a booking.

When people started to realise there was a con, Durham Police were inundated with calls, with call handlers facing unprecedented demand as rumours began to circulate on social media.

Following the sentencing hearing on 3 February, specialist prosecutor for the CPS, James Lewis, said:  “Barlow acted with greed, using false promises and deceptive lies, to convince family and friends, as well as hundreds of customers, who all trusted her, to part with their money so that she could sustain her own lavish lifestyle.  

“Fraud is an insidious crime and the cost to the many victims in this case has not just been financial; it has also caused huge emotional distress and extreme disappointment to devastated customers who had to find out their holiday did not actually exist at a time when the country was in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“Thanks to the thorough investigation by Durham Police and to all of the victims who came forward to report her, we were able to bring Barlow to justice.  

“We will now be taking steps to recover this money taken through Proceeds of Crime.”

Jailing her for nine years, Judge Jo Kidd said: “You have obviously presented yourself to those who knew you as a charming and engaging woman.

“You are clearly a woman of significant intellectual abilities but you have an extraordinary talent for dishonesty.”

Barlow “mercilessly” abused the trust of her nearest and dearest, the judge said, going on “exotic holidays”, enjoying having a Range Rover and designer goods.

“The extent of the betrayal of your mother is truly breathtaking,” the judge said.

“As you gallivanted, your mother’s utility bills went unpaid and county court judgments rained down on her and that led to bailiffs visiting her home.

“I take the view you are a thoroughly callous individual.”

The judge said Barlow convincing her mother that her cancer had returned – having previously been nursed through a bout before – and urging her to look after her husband Paul and their children if she died, was “the most callous and calculated act”.

Tony Davis, defending, said: “Lyne Barlow is a broken, beaten and penniless woman.

“She apologises to each and every victim and of course there are many.”

He said 80 hours of counselling had not revealed a motive, but her business was doomed to fail and stemmed from her desire to be liked.

He added: “Once she got into debt, riding that monster, it was inevitable it would come crashing down.”

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