A mother-of-two who acted as a mule for an organised crime gang has been spared jail after she admitted multiple frauds.
The 35 year old woman from Belfast, was described in court as a vulnerable woman with a heart condition picked on by fraudsters. Joanne Rice pleaded guilty to 14 counts of fraud by false representation over a six day period in 2016.
The M&S bank accounts that were owned by a separate customer had £85,500 transferred from it into what was described as a mule account, one of which belonged to Joanne Rice. In fact, over a six day period, almost £15,800 was deposited into her Danske Bank account, and that she withdrew the same amount in cash.
The court heard how the account holder had just deposited £50,000 inheritance into one of the accounts and was contacted over the phone by a man with a local accent who asked him about his account details. The account holder contacted M&S to tell them £33,000 had been stolen from his account. He was fully reimbursed this money, but again, in August more money was stolen. The money was refunded again and the accounts were closed.
When she was arrested and interviewed on September 5, 2016, Rice admitted she had received funds into her account, and that she had withdrawn large sums of cash which she then handed over. She also admitted spending the £2,000 she received for her role in the criminal enterprise on home decor, clothes and a trip to Dublin.
Defence barrister Joel Lindsay said his client was a vulnerable woman with a heart condition, and the mother of two children aged 11 and six months. Pointing out Rice admitted her role to police during interview, Mr Lindsay said there was “clearly somebody in the background… who the money was being returned to”. Her defence said at the time of offending Rice was struggling financially, adding: “She did this and she did it foolishly.” He also spoke of Rice’s remorse and said: “She is horrified that she became involved in this.”
Judge Fowler said that while he accepted Rice was “manipulated and used” by an organised crime gang who targeted vulnerable people, the custody threshold had been passed. Noting the age of Rice’s youngest child, the judge said it was with a “very significant degree of hesitation” that he was suspending the 18-month prison sentence for two years.