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Saturday, 20 July 2019
A COUPLE who lost their life savings and their home in a botched deal with a currency dealer have warned others not to make the same mistake.
Darrel and Suri Poulos, from Remenham, have spent 18 months living in a boat on the River Thames after losing £160,000.
They were trying to get back on their feet after a failed plan to build an eco-house in their village by buying a Dutch barge to run as a floating bed and breakfast business.
But after agreeing a fee for the boat, the money they gave to currency dealer Frank Deal and his company did not reach the sellers.
The couple only found out when they travelled to Belgium to pick up the barge and were unable to cross the border. They couldn’t contact Mr Deal and eventually had to return to the UK in ruin.
Mr and Mrs Poulos were left homeless by the ordeal but managed to buy a riverboat on which they have been living ever since.
Their attempts to recoup the money have been fruitless after Mr Deal’s company filed for bankruptcy and went into administration.
Mr Poulos, 66, and his 62-year-old wife moved to the UK in 1985 from their native America and came to Remenham a year later.
The couple, who ran a consultancy business and educational company respectively, lived in a large house until September 2013 when they sold up and plunged most of their savings into designing and building a “mini Eden Project” as their new home.
The property, called Arcadian Waters, was to be an “exceptional and innovative” country house with four bedrooms, built on a plot of land near their old home.
But in 2015 the couple were refused planning permission by Wokingham Borough Council on the grounds the development would breach its green belt policy.
The Pouloses, who were then renting a house in Blandy Road, Henley, appealed but a planning inspector upheld the council’s decision, which left them with no permanent home.
Mr Poulos, who is a member of Remenham Parish Council and chairman of the Henley Players, said he had been advised by planning officers that they were likely to win the appeal but he had wanted a “plan B” in case and investigated the barge B&B plan.
He said: “This was a reasonable fallback because we didn’t want to leave the area. We are strongly invested in the community and had no desire to leave.
“We had talked on and off about having a boat to cruisein and maybe going to Europe. I grew up around boats. We didn’t get the final resolution on whether we could build or not until May 2016 and that’s when I thought to activate the back-up plan, which was buying a nice, big Dutch barge to use as a bed and breakfast.
“At that point it seemed to be our only real option. We only had enough money to get something like a boat, not a flat.
“We had used a lot of capital on the project and we couldn’t get back on the property chain.
“If you don’t have the money for a deposit you can’t get a house but you can get a nice boat. I had been quietly researching boats in the background.”
The couple came across the barge, called Agnes of Bruges, and visited the Belgian city twice before agreeing to buy it for 175,000 euros, about £160,00 at the time.
Mr Poulos said: “The guy who built it had died and the family had decided to sell it.
“It was a gorgeous boat, beautifully engineered with four en suite bedrooms.
“I could have brought it over and, once I had a licence in place, put people in it. I wouldn’t have had to change anything, it was that well done.
“I saw other boats in Amsterdam but I knew this was the one. I met the family and they were pleased and thought we would be the right kind of people to own the boat.
“We came back with a sales contract and put up 10 per cent and some other expenses and then set about pulling together money for the second payment. We were very excited about it.”
The couple cashed in all their investments and savings accounts as well as borrowing money from family and friends to pay for the barge.
They used Mr Deal, of Foreign Exchange in Croydon, as Mr Poulos had used him for other deals.
Nevertheless, they checked his credentials with the Financial Conduct Authority, which confirmed he was registered and was also an agent for a larger company, Plutus FX.
Mr Poulos said: “I had used Frank Deal many years before for transferring some payments and never had any problems with him.
“At one level I had experience with him but we also checked with the FCA as it was a lot of money. We were a bit nervous about it.”
The couple transferred the deposit for the boat, which went through without any problems.
However, before they could pay the full amount the UK voted to leave the European Union, causing the value of the pound to fall and leaving them needing to find more money.
Mr Poulos said: “We were then even more stretched because the pounds we had weren’t worth as much as they had been five days before.
“However, we got the money together and locked in a date. We were due to pick up the boat at the end of July or start of August.
“We didn’t give up Blandy Road until we thought we had the boat.” In the August the couple went over to Belgium with a skipper to pick up the barge.
This was two-and-a-half weeks after the transfer of the money had allegedly taken place but the money never reached the vendors.
Mr Poulos said: “At the end of August we had to give up the rental property and we were homeless. We didn’t have the boat and we no longer had the rental property.
“Frank was making all kinds of excuses and said the money had been sent through an old, antiquated system that might take a month to get it back out.
“I was checking with people I knew and they said it did take time sometimes.”
The couple returned to the UK and stayed with friends, ending up in a flat in Burnham. They were then unable to contact Mr Deal or anyone at Foreign Exchange.
By the November they realised the payment would not be going through and approached the FCA for help.
However, they were told it had no power to act after Plutus FX denied being involved and Foreign Exchange had filed for bankruptcy.
They were advised to take their case to the Financial Ombudsman.
Mr Poulos said: “Initially, it looked like they were going to rule in our favour. The FCA database says Plutus are Mr Deal’s principles and it looked pretty clear. Plutus asked for a week or two more and then it all went quiet.
“It wasn’t until March last year that the ombudsman came back and said it couldn’t find any evidence that Plutus was the principle and it couldn’t say it was liable.
“We tried to go through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme but they don’t cover this situation, only bankruptcy.
“We were burned. That was it, there was nothing left.”
The ordeal left Mr Poulos depressed and he even considered suicide.
He said: “On the day when we finally figured it out I was ready to kill myself. It wasn’t just my money but it had been my decision to use them.
“I have a good friend and my wife called her and said, ‘Darrel is really losing it’. She came over and had a long talk with me to calm me down.
“The friends we were staying with also gave us a lot of support.
“It’s terrible that it could drive you to that. You feel like you have let down friends and family.
“It was everything we had plus we borrowed from relatives. It was bad enough to lose your own money but we have ended up with a moral mortgage to all those people. That’s a horrible burden.”
To try to get back on their feet, the couple left their friends’ property and bought a 59ft Dutch cheese barge called Arcadia, which has been their home ever since.
Mr Poulos said: “Our friends were trying to let us recover and giving us advice and support. At one point we talked about whether we could find another boat.
“I found a couple around £45,000 to £50,000 but I couldn’t get that kind of money.
“I found this boat lying in Maastricht with a ridiculous price of 19,000 euros. It was a 60ft steel boat with a big diesel engine.
“My first thought was ‘what’s wrong with this thing?’ It was so far outside the average price for boats this size.
“We had seen others in the UK for £25,000 and been disappointed because they looked nothing like their pictures.
“I went over with really low expectations and was shocked that it wasn’t that bad.
“It needed a lot of work and had a lot of rust but I could see you could make it work as a small living boat.”
After buying the vessel, they sailed to Antwerp with the owner before travelling on to Calais and contracting the same skipper, Mark Montgomery-Smith, to pilot it across the Channel. They moored along the Thames in Henley as they stripped it back and rebuilt it before moving in permanently in September 2017.
Mr Poulos said: “It’s livable for both of us. I say it’s the ultimate downsizing before they move you into a coffin!
“Instead of council tax you pay an Environment Agency fee which is pretty much like for like. It’s a very different lifestyle but not all bad.
“We are now in our second winter and we are pretty much off-grid from April to October.
“It’s solar powered so in the winter I have to run heating oil and some electricity. You are much more involved in your home as you have to get up and make sure you have water.
“At the same time, we’re in a lovely location. Life on the river is gorgeous and everyone on the footpath is in a good mood, not like rush hour. I’m making the best of a really bad deal.”
Mr Poulos said he was still angry with the FCA for the advice it gave him prior to deciding to use Mr Deal and Foreign Exchange.
He said: “They gave us information and reassurance that was not proper. If I’d known they didn’t offer any cover we wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole.
“Having been told he was regulated and an agent for another organisation with protection we thought we were doubly protected.
“I can never forgive the FCA for holding themselves out as something protecting consumers and then not doing it at all. How can it be fit for purpose?”
Mr Poulos said that while he had lost hope of getting his money back, he didn’t want others to make the same mistake and urged people to be vigilant when sending money through currency dealers.
He said: “For almost 12 months I’ve tried not to talk about it. I’ve got to get on with my life and I can’t afford to get depressed and frustrated about it.
“We’ve exhausted everything and given all these organisations a chance to do their job and none of them has come through.
“Let’s name and shame them and hopefully there will be people in Henley and other parts of the country who read this and see that just because it says it’s authorised by the FCA that doesn’t mean anything at all.”
An FCA spokeswoman said: “We have been in contact with Mr and Mrs Poulos to explain our rules and how the financial services compensation scheme protection does not apply to firms that provide money remittance services.
“We have also reviewed the activities of Foreign Exchange and engaged extensively with the firm’s administrators and other authorities but unfortunately at this time we can’t provide an update.”
Clive Wolman, a barrister representing Plutus FX, said: “We appreciate how devastating such losses can.
“However, as the contractual documentation at the time made clear, the Pouloses transacted with Foreign Exchange as a small payments institution in its own right.
“FXL was registered as such under the EU payments services directive with the Financial Conduct Authority.
“In other words, the Pouloses dealt with FXL as a principal counter-party, not as an agent for Plutus FX.
“It is correct to say that FXL was also registered with the FCA as an agent for Plutus FX.
“That, however, was for the purpose of allowing FXL, with Plutus FX’s approval and under its supervision, to carry out very large, or very large volumes of, transactions if and when FXL needed Plutus FX’s regulatory cover and oversight to do so.
“FXL did not need Plutus FX’s regulatory cover for the Pouloses’ transaction and indeed, as it turned out, in the course of its short history, FXL never actually carried out any transactions as the agent for PlutusFX.
“The above explanation of Plutus FX was investigated, accepted and endorsed by the Financial Ombudsman Service, to whom the Pouloses made an unsuccessful complaint two years ago.”
28 February 2019
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