Gambling former Sunderland woman who ran bogus travel firm walks free from court

Zoe Barrass.
Zoe Barrass.

A "treacherous" travel firm boss whose company was exposed as a fraud because of a Facebook campaign has walked free from court.

Former Sunderland woman Zoe Barrass ran First For Holidays, which traded online as Hello Sunshine, and took thousands of pounds for hotels and flights, which she knew would never be booked.

Customers, many of which were family friends or associates or Barrass, handed over cash for trips to Tunisia, Thailand, Paris, Florida, Turkey and Majorca in 2014 but ended up out of pocket and going nowhere.

That year, Barrass took £30,000 worth of holiday bookings and her financial records show she spent £29,000 on gambling.

Newcastle Crown Court heard Barrass, who had a base at Doxford Business Park, in Sunderland, used cash from new bookings to pay for other customers' holidays.

Prosecutor Robin Turton said the 30-year-old mum was "robbing Peter to pay Paul" and added: "The defendant took deposits from clients booking flights and hotels, only for it later to emerge the flight or hotel or both had not in fact been booked.

"She fraudulently represented to customers she had booked flights and hotels when she had not."

Mr Turton told the court the firm came to the attention of the police after one disgruntled customer set up a Facebook page.

He said: "He set up a Facebook campaign against Zoe Barrass, accusing her of scamming customers.

"This gave rise to a number of complaints to the police."

The court heard customers had been given a "vacation package" after booking through Barrass's firm but would then struggle to get in touch with her for confirmation details or information after they handed over the cash.

Checks with travel companies would then reveal that their bookings had never existed.

All but two of the seven customers who were defrauded, who handed over sums between £125 and £3,000, were refunded either by Barrass or through Paypal.

Two clients, who paid £280 and £180, received none of their cash back.

Barrass, who had been living in Spain but is now of South View, Pelton, Chester le Street, admitted seven charges of fraud.

Mr Recorder Peter Makepeace sentenced her to eight months' imprisonment, suspended for two years, with 300 hours unpaid work.

The judge told her: "This was really treacherous offending because the victims of the offending were your friends and friends of your family.

"You took the money, knowing full well that their holidays, that no doubt they had saved their entire working year for, were not going to be booked.

"You were fleecing, mercilessly your own friends and family.

"In my view, the principal reason you are here is because of your gambling,

it's as simple as that."

The judge said it "beggars belief" that Barrass, who gave birth since the start of the police investigation, was allowed to set up the business with no real qualification or training for it.

He also rejected the idea she had been gambling in a bid to book the holidays she had promised, saying it was for her own "pleasure" or perhaps "addiction".

Lee Fish, defending, said Barrass, formerly of Marbury Close, Moorside, set up the business in 2013 and was "incapable" of running it.

Mr Fish told the court: "This was not a business that was set up in order to defraud people, it was a legitimate business set up honestly initially, just run very badly, mismanaged.

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul is the proper way to describe what was going on in the business, to keep it going."

Mr Fish said Barrass, who has no previous convictions, has been "disowned" by her entire family as a result of her offending.

He added: "This venture has cost the defendant dearly, not only emotionally, she has lost her entire family as a result of this.

"She has also lost her good name.

"She spends her life bringing up her children."