40 victims scammed out of nearly €500,000 by cleaner's fake housing scheme, court told

The scheme saw the accused selling victims government-owned properties that had been repossessed by banks at a reduced price

File photo
File photo

A housing scam allegedly dreamt up by Sarah Ann Gatt, a 42-year-old cleaner from Santa Venera, managed to defraud some 40 individuals out of a total of nearly half a million euros before Gatt was arrested, a court has been told.

Proceedings against Gatt, who is pleading not guilty to charges of fraud, misappropriation, falsification of public and private documents, breaching the conditions of a suspended sentence and recidivism, continued before magistrate Astrid May Grima on Thursday morning.

At the time of her arraignment in May, Gatt was accused of taking a total of around €300,000 from at least 27 people in exchange for cut-price government housing properties which never materialised. However, further investigations by the police discovered that the victims numbered 40 and that the total sum defrauded was, in fact, closer to €500,000.

At the end of today’s sitting, the court upheld the defence’s request for bail, having been informed by Gatt’s lawyer Franco Debono, that she had already paid back “more than half” of that total.

The prosecution is accusing Gatt of convincing her victims that the Housing Department had launched a scheme through which government-owned properties that had been repossessed by banks would be sold at reduced prices. She would hand over documents printed on paper with the Housing Department’s letterhead, to support her claims.

Four of her alleged victims testified in today’s sitting. One of them claimed to have been scammed twice by Gatt, who went by the name of Sue Borg. The first incident concerned a government-owned property and a subsequent incident dealt with a deal to import a consignment of PlayStation games, which remained unfulfilled, despite a deposit having been paid. The witness, a shop owner, told the court that she had already taken a number of orders from clients for these games, when the accused claimed that burglars had stolen them from the garage in which they had been stored.

When asked why the burglary had not been reported in the news, the accused had told the shop owner that she had “made arrangements to keep everything under wraps.”

The same witness told the court that her mother and a male friend had also been targeted by the accused, who would refuse cheques or other payment methods, claiming that the Housing Department only accepted cash.

The witness, her mother and partner had handed over the sum of €73,000 to Gatt, who had promised several government properties to them, for which she said she would also make the necessary arrangements, using her fictitious contacts at the Housing Authority.

Unfortunately for her victims, the promised homes and garages she would mention, also turned out to be fictitious. The court heard how one woman, who lost €3,500 to Gatt’s fraud, had handed over the money after the accused claimed to need the money so much that she would kill herself if they didn’t materialise.

Two more victims told the court that when they would press Gatt to complete the transfer of the properties they had paid her for, she would come up with excuses, including claiming her father was dying or had just died, or that she was sick with COVID-19, or that her husband was ill.

Gatt’s lawyers, Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri made a request for bail in today’s sitting, which was forcefully objected to by the prosecution due to the risk of tampering with evidence as well as the fact that over 40 witnesses - all of them alleged victims - were yet to testify.

The defence told the court that Gatt had already paid back “around €300,000” of the amount allegedly defrauded and that if remanded in custody, she would not be able to pay the rest. “I think the alleged victims would prefer getting their money back to seeing her in prison.”

The court upheld the request for bail, releasing Gatt from arrest against a deposit of €20,000 and a €30,000 personal guarantee. She was ordered not to attempt to contact any of the affected parties, the court warning that doing so would result in her rearrest and the confiscation of her €50,000 bail bond.

Inspectors Shaun Friggieri and Ritianne Gauci are prosecuting, assisted by lawyer Andrea Zammit from the Office of the Attorney General. Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri are defence counsel to Gatt. Lawyer Charles Mercieca appeared for the victims.

Charles Mercieca, Ana Thomas and Christian Camilleri represented the victims as parte civile.