When the Metropolitan Police issued me with a harassment warning in March 2014 for questioning convicted fraudster Neelam Desai, the inspector who dealt with my complaint said that, in calling at her house once and sending her a politely-worded email, I had gone “beyond what was reasonable”.
The warning, known as a police information notice, or PIN, said I had left Desai feeling “intimidated and persecuted” and, if I continued to contact or write about her, I could be arrested.
At the time she was already well known to police, having been convicted, earlier that month, of a series of frauds totalling £220,000, the victims of which included her own mother. Despite this, they threatened a journalist with arrest, likening my behaviour to the News of the World phone-hackers, and rejected the subsequent complaint, a decision later upheld by the Independent Police Complaints Commission .
Last month, two and a half years later, Desai appeared at Croydon Crown Court and pleaded guilty to seven counts of fraud, charges that were brought as a direct result of the investigative journalism police helped to hamper.
Across a period of two years Desai, a prolific and unapologetic conwoman, tricked three men, and likely many others, out of tens of thousands of pounds after contacting them through Asian marriage website Shaadi.
I first came into contact with Desai by chance in April 2013, while waiting to cover an unrelated hearing at Croydon Magistrates’ Court, taking notes on some of the other cases in the courtroom to pass the time. They included an assistant pharmacist accused of numerous frauds, such writing fraudulent cheques and operating an international travel business under a false name despite being bankrupt.
We didn’t have a photographer spare so I took her photo outside court with my mobile phone. I posted the story online and a short piece went in that Friday’s paper.
After the story went up on our website I received a phone call from someone claiming to be working for Desai’s solicitor who had questions about the publication process, the likely prominence of the story and where the paper went on sale.
That Friday the office received panicked calls from newsagents who had been contacted by a woman who claimed there was a serious legal issue with the front page (an interview with Bernard Ingham following the death of Margaret Thatcher). She had given her name as Joanna Lumley. Some had even taken the paper off the shelves.
I followed Desai’s case through the courts (not a straightforward task as one of her tactics is to delay the legal process for as long as possible by repeatedly failing to attend hearings) until March 2014 when, on the day of her trail, she admitted ripping off customers of her discount travel business and then trying to pay them back by writing dodgy cheques from her mother’s bank account.
In total she pleaded guilty to five counts of fraud, three of handling stolen goods and also to engaging in business, under the name Nisha Patel, though she had been declared bankrupt in March 2009. Seven other counts of fraud remained on file. She was later jailed for 30 months.
Hours after her conviction I received a phone call from a man who was convinced the Neelam Desai I had written about was the same person who had tricked him out more than £35,500 after contacting him on match-making website Shaadi.
The 35-year-old, who asked not to be named, said he had emptied the £15,000 joint life-savings he held with his father and took out a bank loan of £9,000 in the belief he was paying for expensive holidays with the woman of his dreams, who he knew as Nisha Patel.
The majority of the money was paid into an account under the name “N. Desai” who Nisha said was her travel agent. But the trips never happened and she refused to pay him back, as he fell victim to an elaborate scam that cost him his business and left him feeling suicidal.
I also spoke to a second man who claimed to have been conned during the same period, again after being approached by a woman on Shaadi. He was offered the opportunity to buy an iPhone, an iPad and Currys vouchers by a woman calling herself Rima Vaghela. He paid her £950 but the items never arrived. While demanding his money back the woman accidentally emailed him from an address under the name Neelam Desai. Both men, who were not known to each other, had also been sent photographs of the same woman.
Later that day I went to Desai’s home in Selhurst, Croydon, to put the allegations to her. When she opened the door and saw who I was she slammed it shut. I read out what she was accused of and she denied all knowledge.
A few minutes later the police arrived and asked the photographer and I to leave, which we did. I later received a phone call from a police officer asking me to come into my local station. There I was told Desai had made a formal complaint that I had pretended to be a police officer before assaulting her by grabbing her arm. A few days later she withdrew the allegations.
The following week I was able to track down the woman whose photographs Desai was sending to her victims and passing off as her own. The 32-year-old was shocked to learn the images, taken from her Facebook page, had been used as part of the scam. While she did not know Desai personally, her husband had been in the same year group as her at college.
Meanwhile the officer who led the investigation into her travel business frauds warned she may have “hundreds” of other victims, many of whom may have chosen not to contact the police out of embarrassment.
A third man came forward to explain he had handed over £4,000 to a woman called Rima Vaghela who had contacted him on Shaadi.
His love interest told him she was raising money for homeless children but the person he spoke to over several months was not real and neither was the charity appeal.
The 30-year-old, from Harrow, north London, only realised he was being conned when he Googled “Rima Vaghela” and found stories on the Advertiser’s website about a conwoman using the same name.
“Rima” told him she worked as a pharmacist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and that it was raising money for homeless children. Both the hospital and the charity she named said they had no record of anyone by that name or any such event. “You hear about these things on Panorama or Dispatches and you think it’s never going to be me, but it was. I feel like a right idiot,” he said.
Again Desai did not respond to requests for a comment but instead contacted the Press Complaints Commission.
Days after this latest story three police came to my office and issued the PIN. Despite Desai’s criminal record and history of deceit, I was told the police were under no obligation to investigate whether allegations of harassment were accurate. When I explained that I had done what was expected of me as a responsible reporter I was told journalists were not afforded any special privileges.
One of the officers added: “You say you were just doing your job, but that’s what the News of the World and the phone-hackers said.”
The harassment warning made national news. It was condemned by major media outlets, freedom of speech groups and politicians.
A petition calling for the notice to be rescinded, set up by Press Gazette, was signed by thousands of people.
The Met responded that PINs were not criminal offences and, bizarrely, did not imply that harassment had actually occurred. Instead they merely warned the recipient that an allegation had been made against them.
I was contacted by a fourth victim while discussing with my editor the best way to proceed. He passed on extensive evidence that showed Desai had tricked him out of nearly £20,000 despite being on bail and using the police to hamper our investigation into her.
Like the other men Amar, a 32-year-old from west London, was duped by a woman who he knew through Shaadi. Again she pretended to be raising money for a children’s charity but went further by claiming a friend needed £1,900 to fund life-saving surgery for a sick child.
A transcript of his WhatsApp conversations with Desai – who he knew as Rima Vaghela – showed he was sent hundreds of messages from a mobile phone number she had given to the Press Complaints Commission when protesting about the Advertiser’s stories. The messages demonstrated that, on the morning she pleaded guilty to her travel business scams, she had tried to swindle more money out of Amar. On top of that it was clear she had continued her deceit while complaining to the police that she had been “persecuted” by the stories about her.
In total Amar lost £17,176 from his savings. He said: “I went on Shaadi to find a soul mate. I thought it was great that I had finally found someone I had so much in common with. I saved every penny I had for the last ten years and most of that money is now gone. If this woman had turned out to be genuine then it would have been worth it. But the last four months have been a lie. I feel disgusted.”
I cancelled a weeks’ leave to work on the story. Despite the threat of arrest and action by the IPCC, my editor wanted the coverage to be as prominent and in-depth as possible.
While writing I received a call. I instantly recognised the voice. Since the visit to Desai’s home I had received numerous phone calls, on a withheld number, from a woman calling herself Sima who claimed to be Desai’s cousin. This time she wanted to arrange an interview to give her side of the story.
What she did not know was that, believing the person to be Desai, I had played recordings of our conversations to the four victims. Each of them independently verified that she was the same person they knew variously as Nisha Patel or Rima Vaghela.
I had also been able to record a call from “Rima” to Amar. The voices were the same. In the conversation that followed, which can be heard here, the caller initially denied being Desai before breaking down and revealing her true identity.
The next day police, prompted into action by our stories, arrested Desai on suspicion of committing ten counts of fraud. We passed information about the fake caller to the Met, and later the IPCC, but both continued to uphold the harassment notice.
In February 2015 police confiscated just £320 from Desai as a result of her £230,000 travel business frauds.
Detectives told the court they could only apply for a nominal confiscation order because they believed she had spent her ill-gotten gains on trying to pay other victims back.
Victims of her latest scam described the decision as a “bloody joke”.
“I’ll just have to accept I’m never going to get my money back”, said one.
Later that month they received a bigger kick in the teeth. Desai, they were informed, would not be charged in relation to the dating website scam.
An email from the police explained that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had decided not to pursue the case because she had already been jailed for other offences, “and was unlikely to receive any [further punishment] should these new offences be tried”, and because “a financial investigation revealed she has no assets whatsoever”.
Furious, a number of the men appealed and the decision was reviewed and, in September 2015, the CPS decided it was in the public interest to charge her.
Meanwhile, supported by Advertiser publisher Local World (and later Trinity Mirror) I applied for a judicial review in order to overturn the harassment notice.
In February a high court judge agreed that the case was arguable but, before the matter could be heard in full, and two years after it was first issued, the Met agreed to revoke the PIN (though it has yet to provide written confirmation that it has done so). The IPCC has also written to the College of Policing to review the guidance on the use of PINs in relation to journalists.
Desai appeared in court and denied the allegations. A trial was set for 31 October so I contacted the victims to explain that, while they had remained anonymous until this point, they should prepare themselves for the probability that their names would come out in court.
The 35-year-old from Leicester, who had lost everything, including his father’s money, to Desai’s scam, was distraught, having since rebuilt his life but not told his family the truth about what had happened. We haven’t spoken since that conversation.
The Friday before the trial was due to start the court was alerted that the defence’s position had changed. The opening was brought forward and, in front of an empty public gallery, Desai pleaded guilty to all seven charges of fraud by false representation, relating to three of the men, who she tricked out £57,736 in total between December 2012 and April 2014. She will be sentenced at Croydon Crown Court on 9 December.