Con artists played by Michael Caine and Steve Martin chose the glitzy French Riviera to find their victims in the classic film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
And now glamorous fraudsters from France are using the lure of luxury to dupe British businesses.
Anna McKay heads one of them. She was thrilled to receive a £44,000 order in May from a chic French hotel chain after a desperately worrying start to the year.
Riviera cons: Michael Caine and Steve Martin star in the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Anna runs Suffolk-based Zeez, which makes electronic devices that aid sleep.
A few months earlier, she was approached by a glamorous French woman at London’s ExCeL exhibition centre.
Anna, 63, says: ‘She was very sophisticated, intelligent and dressed head-to-toe in couture. She said she was a hotel consultant, and thought we had one of the best products in the show.’
Anna later received an email full of price requests, supposedly from Alain Boivert, chief financial officer of Hotels & Casino de Deauville, part of the Barriere Group.
Anna says: ‘I spoke by telephone to the gentleman who had sent the email, and he mentioned his consultant had talked to us. He suggested trialling our product in one of the Barriere hotels.’
In June she received a purchase order for goods totalling €48,200 (£43,390) and was told she would need to supply the goods on credit terms, meaning payment would be made 14 days after delivery.
To ensure she was protected she contacted UK Export Finance (UKEF), the UK’s export credit agency and a government department, which, after running checks, offered to insure the deal.
She says: ‘It added legitimacy to the whole thing.’
But days away from dispatch, Anna was having doubts. ‘It was little things,’ she says. ‘Whenever I phoned, I often got through easily. It felt improbable he was rarely in a meeting or on another call.
‘Then, at the last minute, he changed the delivery address to a nondescript Paris warehouse.’
Anna called Barriere and asked to speak to Alain. When he called back he sounded nothing like the man she had been dealing with, so she realised it was a scam.
She says: ‘They were exactly the kind of high-end business partner we were looking for, and we were sucked in. It’s heart-breaking.’
Billionaires paradise: The Marina in St Tropez on the French Riviera where the scammers claim to be based
Initially, Anna was asked to send product samples to the hotel chain’s quality control department. When Money Mail visited the address given, it was an apartment block on a council estate.
And the address Anna was told to dispatch her order to was a storage unit that was rented for just a month to a client who paid cash — and has now vanished.
Fortunately, Anna’s firm didn’t lose its stock, but it is still thousands of pounds out of pocket after making the Zeez devices.
Other small UK firms have been targeted in near-identical cons. London-based Room Service Supplies was close to concluding a deal when it realised it was being scammed.
Firm director Nigel Booth, 65, says: ‘We had about £50,000 worth of face masks in stock and were on the brink of buying more to fulfil a £102,000 order from what looked like a legitimate French firm.’
Nigel had been contacted by a fraudster calling himself Christian Callejon, who said he was a buyer at French distribution firm, SCD.
But when Nigel asked a relative in France to call SCD to check, it said this was nothing to do with them.
The fraudsters had cloned its website. Nigel says: ‘I felt sick. If we’d gone through with this deal it would have finished us.’
Iconic Interiors in Nether Alderley, Cheshire, was also approached by ‘Christian Callejon’.
He wanted to order £100,000 worth of Italian marble tables. MD Mark Holdsworth, 50, says: ‘I had a lucky escape. I got as far as arranging transport but got cold feet.’
All the firms targeted are listed on hotel-suppliers.com which has warned clients of the cons.
UKEF told Money Mail that it relies on information provided by exporters, lacks the powers to detect crime and is not involved in contract negotiations.
A spokesman says: ‘UKEF works closely with exporters… and urges them to remain vigilant to the threats of financial crime.’
Additional reporting: Rory Mulholland