Charity worker Samantha Hields had saved up a pension of £16,000 and, after being made redundant, was given an offer she could not refuse.
A salesman called her out of the blue and told her she could boost her savings by lending the money, securely, to a company redeveloping listed German buildings into luxury flats.
“He said it would double my money, and my money would be safe, as long as I was happy to invest it for five years,” she says.
She was expecting the money to be paid back to her in September last year. So far, she says she has not seen a penny and has not been given any information about what has happened to it.
She is not alone. Warehouse worker Roy, from Kent, transferred £35,000 from his pension, and expected to get his money back in March.
He works nights and cares for his wife, who is disabled after having three strokes.
“I trusted [the salesmen] implicitly,” he says.
Now a BBC investigation can reveal that the property group which borrowed an estimated £600m, mostly from the life savings of people like Samantha and Roy, is months late in paying them back.
The money was lent to Dolphin Trust, now known as German Property Group (GPG), in order for it to redevelop listed German buildings.
Pension holders in some cases were told by unregulated salesmen working for separate companies, and paid 20% commission at the time, that they would almost double their money if they lent their savings for five years to Dolphin Trust.
Roy and Samantha’s experience was with salesmen working for separate companies.
What was promised?
In its marketing, Dolphin Trust, as it was known until April 2019, claims to buy derelict buildings in prime locations, and then redevelops them into luxury apartments.
After the Berlin Wall came down 30 years ago, many buildings were abandoned as people moved from East to West.
Since then, the German government has offered generous tax incentives to Germans who wish to develop listed buildings.
The UK investors who lent Dolphin Trust their money were told their money would be safe because of the “First Legal Charge” they would get against the property.
This document is similar to a mortgage. If the borrower fails to repay, you can order the sale of the property to refund you.
However none of the UK investors who have spoken to BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme say they have received this document, or have even been given an address for the property they are invested in.
The only detail Dolphin Trust has given them is that the British investors are part of “Dolphin Project 80”.
An investor was sent a document which appeared to catalogue buildings secured within the project.
Visits to those buildings by Anna Kluehspies, a reporter from the German public broadcaster BR, found that although one was finished, and another was near completion, no work had been started on the rest, despite them being owned by GPG for more than five years.
Separately, another property not on the list of those supposedly in Project 80, a Bavarian monastery, was purchased by Dolphin in 2017 for €1m is located in Schonthal, a rural village close to the border with the Czech Republic.
The mayor of the town, Ludwig Wallinger, told Radio 4 he was disappointed with the lack of engagement he has had from Dolphin since it took it on.
“Strangely, Dolphin never came to look at this building before they paid for it,” he says.
“The last time I heard from anyone was in spring 2018, when they asked me what I thought they could do with it.
“They suggested perhaps luxury apartments, to which I laughed, because this area just does not have the market for upmarket flats.”
In a letter to You & Yours, GPG says while it did discuss the possibility of building luxury flats at the property, that is not their present intention.
It said the document listing other properties in Project 80 was written by a third party, was three years old, and GPG would not comment on it.
Another document given by Dolphin Trust to investors in Singapore said that their money was secured against a Nazi-built military barracks in the city of Mannheim, in the south-west of Germany.
However, the German government’s Institute of Federal Real Estate says “the German government owns the whole site and there is no private money there at all”.
The company’s response
GPG responded to You & Yours’ investigation saying that the investors’ money is safe. Investors’ capital is not at risk, because it is secured against against property on the German Land Register, it says.
It says only 20% of its customers are affected by delays on projects, which have been caused by various issues with planning and construction work.
Addresses are not always provided to investors, it adds, because that information is not always relevant. However it says it does plan to provide customers with addresses in the future.
It adds that there is no legal obligation to inform loan customers if funds are reallocated to new properties.
Dolphin says it is currently involved in real estate investments of 60 properties. There are currently delays in 10, they say for the other 50 everyone will get their money back on time.
GPG also says introducers are now paid a lower rate of commission.
However, experts say this case raises wider questions.
Individuals who have a self-invested personal pensions (Sipps) can choose freely where to invest the money, so may be able to put it into investments such as the one offered by GPG.
Baroness Ros Altmann, the former pensions minister, says it is time that the companies that administer this type of pension took some responsibility for their customers.
“These regulated Sipp companies should not be allowed to accept these unregulated investments from individuals who have not had regulated financial advice,” she says.
Although only people who sought financial advice can claim compensation when investments fail to pay, the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) says it can also look at complaints against Sipp providers in these kinds of cases.
Debbie Enever, head of policy at the FOS, says: “We are increasingly seeing people complaining about Sipp providers, saying they shouldn’t have put their money into something which was that risky.
“Pension-holders need to be really careful when investing their money. Always get financial advice, and find out as much as you can about what your money is being invested in before transferring it.”