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Birmingham funeral plan fraud could affect as many as 50 pensioners

Investigation uncovers more victims of cruel con as devastated families come forward following our exclusive report

Phyllis Whitburn was sold a funeral plan for her late husband Brian Whitburn, but after he passed away her family discovered the plan didn't exist
Phyllis Whitburn was sold a funeral plan for her late husband Brian Whitburn, but after he passed away her family discovered the plan didn't exist

A Birmingham undertaker has revealed there could be at least 50 victims of a heart-breaking funeral cash fraud believed to have fleeced at least £150,000.

The list of casualties from the cruel con may be much longer, however, as more devastated families come forward following last week’s Sunday Mercury special investigation into Samuel James & Sons.

Funeral plans sold at the Acocks Green funeral parlour – now under new ownership – were found not to exist, despite pensioners paying in thousands of pounds to ensure final farewells were paid for.

Last week we revealed how, in his last hours, 83-year-old cancer victim Brian Whitburn whispered to his wife: “You’ve got nothing to worry about, love, everything is covered” unaware his £3,900 plan was a scam.

Brian and Phyllis Whitburn in 2010
Brian and Phyllis Whitburn in 2010

We also told of the anguish of 72-year-old Imelda Moorhouse, who parted with her £3,500 savings, only to discover she has no plan in place.

Since then we have learned of more misery.

Two highly vulnerable individuals, guided by mental health charity Mencap’s ‘wills and trust division’, are among those massively out of pocket after purchasing bogus funeral plans from Samuel James.

There is no suggestion the charity breached its own guidelines. Legal advice was sought and tenders gained before an agreement was made in good faith with Samuel James & Sons.

A 95-year-old woman was driven to the bank by a company representative where she withdrew £2,000 for her plan. Paramedics were called to the frail widow’s sheltered housing flat last week after she discovered her documentation is not worth the paper it was written on.

“I thought they were my friends,” the confused pensioner repeated time and again when the Mercury met with her.

And, amazingly, undertaker Tony James, who died in October after a massive stroke, appeared on local radio five years ago where he doled out advice on... funeral fraud.

Brian and Phyllis Whitburn on their wedding day in 2001
Brian and Phyllis Whitburn on their wedding day in 2001

West Midlands Police are now investigating the fraud but admit that it will be a complicated case to solve, not least because of James’ death. There is also the fact James’ real name was Tony Johnson, we have been told. Police have advised customers of the company to check plans with the plan providers.

The funeral profession may have been stained by the actions of Samuel James & Sons, but the firm which took over the company’s Fox Hollies Road premises in 2013 has shown the care and compassion the industry delivers in 99.9 per cent of cases.

Powell and Family undertakers has absolutely no links to the now defunct firm at the centre of a police probe, but merely had the misfortune of moving into their old address. Bosses were legally entitled to turn away families affected by the scam.

Instead, Catherine Powell has pored over documents, helped victims and even contacted police on their behalf. Having studied the shoddy paper trail, she believes that there are 50 victims.

Yesterday, she described the growing clamour for answers as an “hideous situation”. “There was a relationship and a trust which was totally betrayed,” she said. “These people were opportunistic.”

The company immediately issued an internet statement following our front page exclusive.

It stated: “This Sunday’s edition of the Sunday Mercury will show the devastating effect that one dishonest funeral director has had on two local families but, of course, the article will result in many more wondering whether they, too, have been victims of funeral plan fraud.

“The former occupiers of our funeral home in Acocks Green, Samuel James & Sons, betrayed the trust of these two families by taking money intended for funeral plans but the plans were never set up.”

That betrayal may run much deeper.

A resident of nearby Home Meadow House, a sheltered complex for the elderly, said he raised the alarm two years ago after witnessing company representatives “gut” the flat of a recently deceased resident, an elderly woman who was befriended by staff members. He openly voiced concern as furniture was carried from the accommodation.

“Vultures circling springs to mind,” said the 68-year-old, who witnessed Samuel James employees carry items from Rosa Brown’s home into the company van used to transport bodies. He watched dumbstruck as Tony James himself staggered under the weight of a plasma TV.

“That place was pillaged,” said no-nonsense Brummie Michael, “furniture, everything. It was unbelievable. I even watched them cart away the mobility scooter.”

He alleges that James befriended the sick and frail at Home Meadow House.

Annie Beaton, affectionately known as Nan, was among them. She even took workers out for meals – and paid the bill, says Michael.

“She is a lovely woman,” he said. “You could put your hand in her purse and take money out, and she would let you have it. I told her many times to wise up.”

In 2005, Nan, aged 95, was driven to a bank to withdraw £2,000 for her funeral plan. Last week she discovered there is no plan – and has taken it badly. She was too upset to talk about the matter, repeating over and over again: “I thought they were my friends.”

“This will kill her off,” said Michael. “I don’t think she’ll see Christmas.

“I am disgusted, I really am disgusted.”

Tony James picked on the wrong pensioner when he attempted to prise cash from Michael, however.

“I told him I’m a Buddhist and believe in reincarnation,” he said. “I told him I’m coming back as a hornet, and the first thing I was going to do was bite him on the bum. He didn’t ask me again.”

Meanwhile, another local undertaker told the Mercury how James had appeared on local radio some years back.

“You couldn’t make it up,” he said. “He was on the radio talking about funeral cons.”

Last week the Sunday Mercury received assurances that Tony James was a lone trader gone rogue.

He was unamarried and left no family.

Yet we have been told that one of the receipts for a funeral plan payment was signed by a “Jane James”.

Our reporter knocked on Mr James’ former Redditch home and a middle-aged woman, who described herself as a “friend”, answered, immediately distanced herself from any knowledge of the funeral operation, and declined to give her name.

In an official statement, West Midlands Police revealed it is looking at further allegations of fraud.

A spokeswoman said: “We have been contacted in respect of a possible four more victims of fraud, and the investigation continues.”

 

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