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Couple Betrayed By Employee Who Stole Nearly $100,000 From Them During Three-Year Crime Spree

Couple Betrayed By Employee Who Stole Nearly $100,000 From Them During Three-Year Crime Spree
Collect/ PA Real Life

A hard-working husband and wife have spoken of their devastation after an employee, who became a family friend almost crippled them by stealing £75,000 (~$100,000) from their company, during a brazen three-year crime spree.

Just when Lisa Ellingham, 47, and her husband, John, 49, who run Canopy UK Direct Ltd—makers of extraction systems—thought things could not get any worse, she was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour behind her left eye, leaving her life and her livelihood in jeopardy.

Shattered when their admin assistant Dianne Polson's betrayal was exposed, mum of two Lisa, of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, said:

“After what's happened, we'll never trust anyone again. Dianne's left a mark on us and we'll have trust issues for the rest of our lives."

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

The Ellinghams started their family business in their garage in 2007 and had 15 employees when Polson's shameless fraud was exposed in the summer of 2018, after a bookkeeper alerted them to some financial irregularities which eventually exposed her.

A £21,000 ($27,300) a year admin assistant, she was jailed for 40 months in August 2019, after pleading guilty to committing fraud by false representation at Cambridge Crown Court.

Lisa said:

“To be honest, we were just relieved that Dianne had got some form of punishment."
“It was a relief to know the judge had felt our pain and justice had been done."

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

But it was not until January this year, five months after being sent down, that she appeared at Peterborough Crown Court by video link from HMP Peterborough and was ordered to pay the Ellinghams just £2,595.66 ($3,373.84) from a pension she had.

She will owe the rest of the money she stole indefinitely and, should she ever have any assets in the future, the court can also seize them.

The money she has repaid is a drop in the ocean for John and Lisa, who have had to cut their workforce to just six and, as well as trying to save their crumbling business, discovered in December 2018 that Lisa had an ocular melanoma.

Dianne Polson (Cambridgeshire Constabulary)

According to the NHS, this is a type of cancer that forms from pigment-producing cells called melanocytes and can develop on the skin, inside an eye or on a conjunctiva.

Lisa, who has a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son with John, said:

“When I was diagnosed with cancer it made everything Polson had done seem less important. It put everything into perspective."
"Yes, Dianne who I thought of as a friend, had betrayed our trust. Yes, she'd stolen from our business, our livelihood, our children's legacy."
“But, at the end of the day, it was only money. I was—and still am—facing the prospect of having my life stolen."

Bravely speaking out to raise awareness of how easily “anyone" can become a victim of fraud, John said neither of them suspected Polson.

He continued:

“People always ask us, 'How did a company not notice so much money being stolen?' But, trust me, it can happen easily. It was part of Dianne's job to manage the finances and she knew exactly what she was doing."
“The thing is, when you're running a business, you need to put your trust in other people to grow the company. If we tried to do everything ourselves then the business would've stagnated."

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

Even though the court will be at liberty to seize Polson's future assets, there is no guarantee that the Ellinghams will ever have their money returned.

In the meantime, their company, which is based in Woodston, Peterborough, is struggling to survive.

John said:

“Dianne has basically crippled the business—there's no cushion, no money sitting in the bank."
“We can't grow it, because we're still trying to save it. The only reason we've survived is because our suppliers have been so understanding."

He added:

“When I first started the firm, I was working 65-hour weeks—it was a huge task."
“Building a business takes over your life. It was worth it because we were building a better life for ourselves and our children. Now that's all been snatched away."

First meeting Polson in 2015, when she interviewed for an admin assistant role, Lisa was impressed by her experience.

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

She recalled:

“Dianne had worked for a debt collector for 20 years, so we knew she had lots of experience in handling money."
“She was friendly and bubbly—quite a character—and we thought she'd fit in really well. The company Dianne had worked at previously had gone into liquidation, so we couldn't get a reference, but we decided to hire her anyway."

Polson joined the company in February 2015 and quickly became a popular member of the team.

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

“Dianne was like my right-hand woman."
“She sat opposite me and we became good friends. We'd always chat and sometimes I'd confide in her about personal things."
“Even now, I can't believe she'd sit so near to me, day in day out, acting as though she was my friend—all the while knowing she was betraying me."

She was even close to the couple's children, who wish to stay anonymous.

“Whenever my kids came into the office, she'd give them a kiss and a cuddle. They were fond of Dianne and I thought she was fond of them too."
“At Christmas or on their birthdays, she'd buy them presents. But she clearly wasn't paying for them out of her own pocket."

Despite bonding with the entire Ellingham family, in December 2015, Polson stole from her employers for the first time.

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

John said:

“She stole a few hundred quid. What we now know is that she'd steal money by putting her card or card details into the office PDQ machine—a device that you can make electronic money transfers from."
“She would then process a refund—in the same way you would for a customer—but instead, she'd put the money back onto her own card."
“She would only ever refund herself an amount that one of our products cost, so it looked like a genuine refund."

After each theft, Polson recorded the refund, but attributed it to random customers' accounts.

John continued:

“We had bookkeepers who worked off-site and if they ever queried a PDQ transaction, Dianne would reply without copying Lisa into the emails."
"But there was never any reason to be suspicious about it. After all, it was part of her job to deal with the bookkeepers."

Believing she had found a foolproof system for stealing money, Polson continued to operate it for three years.

John added:

“She got greedier and greedier—sometimes she was refunding herself money three or four times a day."
“Between January and August 2018 she took £47,000 ($61,000), but in total she stole £75,785 ($98,517)."
“She was recording it as customer refunds and, because I thought we had so few, it wasn't something I needed to address. Also, I trusted Dianne and the bookkeepers—and the credit card company Barclaycard, especially, as they had sight of the accounts too."

Looking back, Lisa believes Polson had a suspicious amount of money for someone on a fairly modest salary.

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

Said Lisa:

“She was a single mum and I felt bad for her because I thought she must've been struggling financially."
“Once I lent her money to buy a washing machine and told her to repay me whenever she could."
“But she seemed to spend a lot. She did loads of online shopping and, apparently, according to other staff members, she was always getting parcels delivered to the office first thing in the morning."
“She'd put the parcels in the car before I got in, so I never saw quite how much she was ordering. She paid for her daughter to get taxis everywhere, but I just thought she'd racked up credit card debts."

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

Finally, in August 2018, Polson's crime spree was brought to a sudden halt.

Lisa said:

“One day the bookkeeper said, 'Your refunds are a nightmare to sort!' and I said, 'What are you talking about? We don't get any refunds.' The bookkeeper paused and said, 'Well, why were £5,000 ($6,500) worth of refunds processed in May?'"

Realizing that something untoward had been happening, John and Lisa started to investigate.

“We'd booked a holiday to Southend-on-Sea in Essex, so while we were away we asked our manager to look into the company finances."
“The manager called and told me that all the irregularities she found pointed to Dianne."
"We were in complete shock. I felt numb that someone I'd trusted and thought of as a friend had been doing this behind our backs for years."

In the meantime, Polson heard that her employers were suspicious.

Lisa added:

“We were due back in the office on the Friday afternoon, but before we arrived, Dianne suddenly found an excuse to leave immediately—and I've not seen her since."

The police were alerted and Polson was subsequently arrested on suspicion of committing fraud by false representation.

Lisa said:

“I'm quite a fiery person, but when I found out what Dianne had done, I was completely broken."
“I went through every emotion—disbelief, sadness, anger—it was like a grieving process."
“I'm angry that we've been betrayed, angry that I have to work full-time and can't pick my kids up from school anymore. I know lots of people can't, but we worked hard so that I could spend more time with them."
"And I'm angry that I'll never trust anyone again."

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

Telling their children about Polson's betrayal was also heartbreaking for the couple.

Lisa said:

“We sat them down and told them everything. They were devastated that this woman they trusted and thought a lot of had been stealing from their mum and dad, stealing their legacy."

Then, just as they began to absorb the devastating betrayal, the couple received even worse news.

Lisa said:

“I started getting headaches. I'd already had cataracts removed and wear fake lenses, so I just thought the lenses had blurred when my eyesight went funny."
“I kept putting off going to the doctor, as we had so much on with the business, but, in the end, in October, John told me to go."
“I saw an eye specialist who said it looked like I had a detached retina—which can be really dangerous—and told me to go to hospital immediately."

At Peterborough City Hospital, after a series of tests, doctors told her they could see the retina was detached by something suspect—and Lisa was referred to an ocular oncology specialist in Sheffield.

In October, it was confirmed that Lisa had ocular melanoma—a 13mm tumor in her left eye—and she began special radiation treatment called brachytherapy that December. It involves using a sealed radiation source, which is placed inside or next to the area needing treatment—in Lisa's case, this was directly over the tumor. For four days it was placed behind her eye, after which she had an operation to remove it.

“The radiation must've worked because the doctors confirmed the tumor had started to shrink."

While Lisa has not yet received the all clear and still has three monthly MRI scans, to monitor the cancer, her condition remains stable.

“The doctors estimate I'll have to keep having appointments for the next three to five years. Hopefully, by then I'll be in remission – only time will tell."

Meanwhile, Polson is behind bars—jailed for 40 months for her crime.

Lisa said:

“I'm glad she's been jailed, but nothing will ever make up for the hurt and upset she's inflicted on our family. It wasn't great for our staff either—we now operate on a skeleton staff."
“At least, throughout this whole ordeal, Peterborough police have been brilliant. I cannot speak highly enough of them. Anything and everything we needed, they did."

While the Ellinghams are trying to move forwards, John wants their nightmare to act as a stark warning to other business owners that this could happen to anyone.

Lisa and John Ellingham (Collect/ PA Real Life)

He said:

“You never believe this type of crime could happen to you, because you think you've done everything you can to safeguard yourself—but the chances are you haven't. Every business owner needs to be careful who they trust."
“It was the hardest time we've ever been through, especially as Lisa then became ill on top of everything else. It was like we were in a boxing ring and every time the bell rang, or in our case, something else awful happened, we had to get back up and carry on fighting."
"But, we're stronger than ever because of it and this whole nightmare has proved that together we can get through anything."

In response to the Ellinghams' criticism of the company, a spokesperson for Barclaycard said:

“We are investigating the case as a priority and will continue to keep the customer updated as we work to find a resolution."