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Pembrokeshire artist ‘lost £61k in motorhome scam’

PEMBROKESHIRE artist Claire Howell of Eglwyswrw is one of more than 50 potential victims of an alleged fraud. It concerns Steve Mann Caravans, a dealership based in North Yorkshire.

Clare, 59, who also works as a consultant, dreamt doing art full time in retirement. After selling her house, she bought her first motorhome in 2022 and began travelling around Europe with her two French Bulldogs, Olive and Sybil.

Speaking to The Herald on Wednesday, Claire explained that she finds ‘inspiration’ for her artwork while travelling. “It is a life I have worked hard towards for many years, and it makes me so happy,” she said.

She says that she lost £61,500 in the alleged scam. Despite an ongoing police investigation, she has been advised there is ‘little chance’ of recovering her money.

In response, Clare set up a ‘GoFundMe’ page to raise funds for a class action lawsuit against the company.

When initially alerted to the investigation, there were 30 victims, but that number has since risen to more than 50 and is ‘steadily growing.’

In January 2022, Clare put down a deposit for a new motorhome, expecting delivery by June 2022. The price agreed
was £66,101 excluding extras. She chose Steve Mann Caravans as they were an approved ‘Etrusco’ dealership, a popular motorhome manufacturer.

“June came and went,” Clare recounted, yet her motorhome never arrived. When questioned, James Mann, the dealership’s director, cited that there were delays in the supply chain with all new motorhomes coming from Europe.

Clare sought assistance from the Facebook group ‘Motorhome Happiness’. She was directed to another dealership where she found an ex-hire motorhome within her budget, which she purchased.

Returning to the UK at the end of 2022 to work , Clare planned another trip in May 2023 and booked her motorhome for the journey.

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During this period, she maintained consistent contact with Mann.

Mann later informed Clare that her new motorhome was ready for collection by Mann and could be picked up two days
before she was due to travel. Clare then faced a “massive dilemma” about transferring paperwork and insurance from one motorhome to another. “The logistics of this seemed to be unachievable in the timescale.”

Mann suggested he could sell the new motorhome for Clare, charging a £2,000 brokerage fee. Howell agreed to this and paid the balance due to purchase the new Etrusco. “ I was expecting a quick sale and a modest profit, which I planned to use to pay for my Dad’s cataract surgery and a holiday for my son’s 21st birthday”.

Mann confirmed the sale in July 2023 for £76,500, with a £5,000 deposit from third-party buyers. Clare requested Mann send her £3,000, allowing him to keep the brokerage fee.

However, Mann still owed Clare £74,500. “I was chasing him regularly, asking when are you going to complete the sale?” Clare said.

In October 2023, Mann claimed the sale was completed and the funds were forthcoming, but Clare received no money despite “almost daily phone calls and texts” with Mann.

“I was never led to believe that anything dodgy was going on,” Clare said. Mann blamed his bank, claiming the money was in a ‘suspense account’ and inaccessible.

Mann said his bank suggested sending cheques for the full amount of £71,500. Howell received a cheque for £71,995, which bounced and when represented was cancelled by Mann. However, the first cheque bounced and the second was cancelled by Mann himself.

Mrs Howell told the Herald that Mann, feeling ‘embarrassed,’ arranged a £10,000 bank transfer from his personal investments. However, it became “more apparent that there was perhaps a cashflow issue.”

In December 2023, Mann sent a screenshot of a £25,000 transfer confirmation, but no money arrived in Clare’s account.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of texts sent back and forth,” Clare said. In January 2024, Clare suggested Mann repay her in instalments of £5,000 a week, which Mann agreed to, but no payments were made.

Steve Mann caravans site is now closed.

Realising “something proper dodgy was going on,” Clare received an unexpected email from representing a vehicle financing company. They informed her that her motorhome had been purchased on finance by Mann and that the financing agreement for the motorhome had ended without payment and they were looking to retrieve the vehicle.

Howell said, “this was the first I’d heard of any finance contract, I paid in full for the motorhome so there should have been no need for financing”.

Mrs Howell called the solicitor and explained that she didn’t have the motorhome, neither had she been paid for the sale of the motorhome to the third-party buyers. The company responded that she should contact North Yorkshire

Clare feels ‘desperate’ and ‘utterly powerless.’ She sold all her investments, just before she found out about the fraud case, to buy and convert a house into a café and community hub for Eglwyswrw, but can no longer afford to continue.

“I’m desperate now, and if I don’t retrieve the money, I’ll have to sell my motorhome. It’s a luxury item, but it means the world to me. I’m a single mum who’s worked hard for my dream.”

When Clare first experienced repayment issues, she contacted the Erwin Hymer Group, owners of Etrusco motorhomes. They subsequently withdrew their dealership from Steve Mann Caravans.

Howell said that she followed up and informed them that she was one who alerted the company to this situation and asked for some support in her case.

“They haven’t helped me in any way; they were only worried about their brand,” Clare said.

Mrs Howell now faces selling the property next door and her motorhome. “At 59, I have no chance of earning that money back. I’m in debt for the first time in years. It’s a horrible situation.”

“There is no real support for anyone in my situation,” Clare said, explaining the impact on her mental health and life. “It’s all-consuming. I wake up questioning why me? It’s had an impact on everything.”

Clare doubts she will raise the full £61,500 on her ‘GoFundMe’ page but hopes to fund a class action lawsuit.

She is aware of other similar cases involving Steve Mann but has not been in contact with any other victims of this case, although it is all over social media.

“James Mann has had a direct impact on the community and myself,” Clare said.

The Herald understands that North Yorkshire Police are also probing alleged money laundering at Steve Mann Caravans, which was founded as a mobile repair business in 1991 and is run by Mr Mann, his wife Alison and son James.

A workshop opened in Ilkley in 2007, before the company moved to larger premises in Harrogate in 2017 and expanded into second-hand sales.

The business is now believed to be closed with a number of vehicles remaining on the forecourt. North Yorkshire Police told this newspaper: “Three people have been arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering in connection with a caravan business in North Yorkshire.

“The arrests are part of a complex investigation by North Yorkshire Police into the company. Officers are investigating fraud offences involving around 50 victims.

“A 38-year-old man, a 62-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man were arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering on Tuesday 30 April 2024. They have since been released and remain under investigation.

“As is usual with complex investigations of this nature, it is anticipated that enquiries will take a long time to complete.

“If anyone believes they may be affected by the investigation, please call North Yorkshire Police on 101 and pass information for reference number 12240018133.”