Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cruel racket that leaves Poles penniless

FOR them it is a last, desperate gamble to break free of poverty in their homeland.

Yet thousands of Poles who arrive in Slough are victims of heartless conmen.

They have fallen foul of a scam that leaves them stranded in Britain with nothing more than the clothes they stand in.

Many break down in tears at the roadside. And with many unable to speak English they head for the nearest house for help.

For those who decide to tough it out in Slough, they can be drawn into a downward spiral, living illegally in squalid conditons. They are exploited by employers who pay them as little as £1.50 an hour.

Over the past six months, 190 victims of this scam have been uncovered by police. But Detective inspector Steve Armstead, of Slough CID believes the real figure could run into thousands.

He co-ordinates Operation Canary, set up to uncover the organised crime behind this con. He works with Detective Constable James Turner, who has built up a reputation as an authority on the scams.

DI Armstead said: "The Poles are decent, hard-working people and they are the victims here. We want the help of the Polish community in trying to catch those responsible."

The scam begins with an advert in a Polish national newspaper, Gazetta Wyborca.

This usually reads: 'Jobs available in the UK. No specific skills required. No English necessary. Just phone this number.'

It usually mentions a reputable company in Britain.

Poles then ring a mobile number, which belongs to someone based in Slough. After making the journey to Britain they are collected from the airport or Victoria station by a driver who is part of the scam. When they arrive in Slough, they are asked to hand over £250.

D I Armstead said: "They hand over the money in the belief that it will get them employment or something to do with health and safety or language classes.

"The driver then disappears. The money the victims have spent in just getting over to Britain and the £250 is usually their life savings. So they are just left there, somewhere to the west of London. They usually burst into tears."

The distraught new arrivals usually walk to the nearest home to get help and are taken to Slough police station, where they end up sleeping on the floor behind the counter.

The Poles, who can be aged from 18 to their 50s, who decide to stay on in Slough, can end up living an even more wretched existence. They are forced to sleep in houses with five to a bedroom, or sleep in corridor or kitchen floors.

Ironically, Gazetta Wyborca, the newspaper which runs the advert, also runs stories warning that the streets of London or Slough are not paved with gold.

So far only ten arrests have been in connection the scam. But they have been drivers, those who collect the new arrivals from airports and coaches. "These are just the foot soldiers. We want to get to those who are further up in the hierarchy."

D I Armstead said they are working hard at forging stronger links with the Polish community to enlist their support.

He said: "There is a mistrust of the police, which probably stems from the communist era in Poland."