A travel agent who pretended to family and customers that she had cancer as part of a £2.6 million (€2.9 million) con has been jailed for nine years in England.
Married mother-of-two Lyne Barlow, 39, formerly of Stanley, County Durham, sold holidays around the world for too-good-to-be-true prices, conning more than 1,400 victims before her business crashed in September 2020.
She even stole £520,000 from her own mother, Susan Colman – following the death of her father in 2015 – after stealing her financial identity, raiding her bank account and covering her tracks by diverting her 64-year-old mother’s mail.
And to deflect blame when customers complained, she pretended to have cancer, convincing even her closest relatives.
Remarkably, Barlow took steps to make them believe her, attending fake hospital appointments and even leaving hair on the bed to make it look as though it was falling out.
Jailing her for nine years, Judge Jo Kidd said: “You have obviously presented yourself to those who knew you as a charming and engaging woman.
“You are clearly a woman of significant intellectual abilities but you have an extraordinary talent for dishonesty.”
Barlow “mercilessly” abused the trust of her nearest and dearest, the judge said, going on “exotic holidays”, enjoying having a Range Rover and designer goods.
“The extent of the betrayal of your mother is truly breathtaking,” the judge said.
“As you gallivanted, your mother’s utility bills went unpaid and county court judgments rained down on her and that led to bailiffs visiting her home.
“I take the view you are a thoroughly callous individual.”
The judge said Barlow convincing her mother that her cancer had returned – having previously been nursed through a bout before – and urging her to look after her husband Paul and their children if she died, was “the most callous and calculated act”.
To con her customers, Barlow falsely claimed she was Atol and Abta protected and quickly built up her business online and via word of mouth.
But when victims started to see their holidays fall through, they were left out of pocket or even stranded abroad if she had not booked a return flight.
People shared their experience on Facebook and soon Durham Police were being swamped by calls relating to Lyne Barlow Independent Travel.
Inquiries found she was operating a Ponzi-style scheme, taking money from new victims to pay for existing bookings, or using money she had borrowed from friends and relatives.
Barlow, who had previously worked as a travel agent, would just use the same websites that could be accessed by any member of the public, but discounted the price to make it look attractive.
Some holidays were simply not booked – with victims finding out when they arrived at the airport.
Some victims were promised booking details that never appeared, despite repeated requests.
And to deflect inquiries, she claimed to be undergoing treatment for cancer, even telling one customer it was “stage 3/4” and “it’s in my bones”.
A local travel industry source said Barlow would offer deals such as a five-star all-inclusive week in Dubai for just £500.
The source said: “We tried to tell numerous people it wasn’t right, but as some people were travelling and getting the holidays at these prices – she was clearly funding the shortfall with other people’s money – they wouldn’t believe it.”
As the business collapsed, she asked friends for help with loans, including her husband’s best man, making excuses for why she needed help.
In October she admitted frauds relating to loans, investments and holiday sales, and a money-laundering charge.
The judge said the amount stolen over seven years was £2.6m, causing a loss of over £1.2m.
Tony Davis, defending, said: “Lyne Barlow is a broken, beaten and penniless woman.
“She apologises to each and every victim and of course there are many.”
He said 80 hours of counselling had not revealed a motive, but her business was doomed to fail and stemmed from her desire to be liked.
He added: “Once she got into debt, riding that monster, it was inevitable it would come crashing down.”
Outside court Detective Sergeant Alan Meehan said: “Not only did Barlow offer holidays she could not deliver, but she also took advantage of the generosity and understanding of those around her, which has resulted in such far-reaching consequences.”