German property company collapses with my pension

By Shari Vahl
Reporter, You and Yours

Image caption,
"It's a third of my pension pot," says Caroline. "It's a huge blow"

Millions of pounds of investors' pension savings have not been returned by a German property company that was promising to keep them safe, a BBC investigation has revealed.

Dolphin Trust, now known as German Property Group, promised high interest payments and investors' original capital back, if they lent it money for up to five years.

But the firm has now collapsed owing an estimated £1bn to investors all over the world.

Caroline Palmer from Wiltshire is one of those who has not had her money. Six years ago after her divorce, the then self-employed fitness instructor stopped paying into her £65,000 pension. Concerned for her financial future, she was persuaded to lend Dolphin £15,000 from her pension with the promise it was secure.

After receiving some interest, the rest of her money was supposed to have been returned last year, but she still has not received it.

"To not know that if anything went belly up that I would not have any recompense, I definitely wouldn't have touched it with a bargepole, because I'm a low risk person," she says.

"It's a third of my pension pot and that's all I've got. It's a huge blow."

Some investors have had their money back but Caroline isn't the only one waiting for her pension savings to be returned.

Image source, Mark Bennett
Image caption,
Mark Bennett: "I've got absolutely no idea where my money has gone"

Following redundancy, Mark Bennett in Lichfield first invested with Dolphin in 2015. By 2017 he had invested £279,000, his entire pension pot. Like Caroline he hasn't got it back.

"We've had to sell the family home and we've bought a much smaller property so we can realise some cash until we can see our way out of this situation," he says.

"It's the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. At the moment I've got absolutely no idea where my money has gone."

Dolphin said it would use the money to buy derelict listed buildings across Germany, to turn them into flats and then sell them to German buyers. Whilst it did use some investor money to buy some buildings, it did not develop enough of them to pay back the loans.

BBC Radio 4's You & Yours has found evidence suggesting loans were paid to director Charles Smethurst and his family. We have seen documents suggesting investor money was used to pay for fashion shows, television stations, beauty products, parties and rent.

Image caption,
This monastery in Bavaria was one of the buildings purchased by Dolphin for renovation

The programme has also found evidence suggesting some investors were paid back with other investors' money.

Who did this?

Separate unregulated introducers persuaded thousands of people in the UK to invest in the firm. Many, like Mark and Caroline, did not know that these salespeople were being paid hefty commissions. You & Yours has seen documents showing standard commissions paid by Dolphin of 21%.

In July 2020, German Property Group began filing for bankruptcy in Germany. It is estimated to owe at least £1bn to investors worldwide and at least £378m is thought to have been invested by people in the UK.

Only a fraction of the money invested by individuals in the UK, Ireland, Singapore, Korea and other countries was spent on German property.

Most investors were never told which buildings their money was secured against, making it hard to know for sure their money was secured as promised.

A document given by Dolphin to investors in Singapore said their money was secured against a military barracks in Mannheim, in south-west Germany. But Germany's Institute of Federal Real Estate says Dolphin has never owned it. The government "owns the whole site and there is no private money there at all".

So where did the money go?

You & Yours has seen documents that suggest millions were paid out as loans to the director of Dolphin, Charles Smethurst, his wife Kerstin Manuela Lenz and his son Patrick Smethurst. The programme asked Charles Smethurst and Ms Lenz if they had received loans and if these had been paid back. They did not respond. Patrick Smethurst said the BBC had got the facts wrong.

Other evidence seen by the BBC suggests loans worth nine million euros were paid to a company run by Ms Lenz. The company operated a TV shopping channel and fashion brand.

"How can that be right? how on earth can it be right that money invested in one project for buildings can be lent to [.....] a fashion business? I just don't get it, I don't understand it at all," says Caroline Palmer.

The UK's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) says it "is aware that UK consumers have invested in GPG, either directly or via a self-invested personal pension scheme (SIPP) or small self-administered scheme (SASS) arrangement".

The FCA adds: "We are working closely with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) and the Ombudsman service on this matter and will be issuing further information as the situation develops."

GPG is currently in administration. Neither Mr Smethurst nor his wife responded to You & Yours' questions. The company is not linked with a separate business called Dolphin Capital Investors.

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