pyramid scheme
Ritamaria Lomas and Jane Smith arriving at Bristol Magistrates Court accused of running a £21 million illegal pyramid scheme on March 17 2010, in Bristol, England.Getty

A group of nine women in Bristol and Bath masterminded a pyramid scheme worth £21 million by luring in vulnerable people - most of them women - with a "get rich quick" promise.

The court case against the "greedy" group can be reported for the first time today after a media ban on reporting the trials was lifted by the judge.

The "Give and Take" scheme, also known as "Key to a Fortune", enticed its 10,000 victims to "beg, borrow or steal" £3,000 to invest in the scheme between May 2008 and April 2009.

Members of the public who signed up to the pyramid scheme, which swept across south-west England and south Wales five years ago, were promised a £24,000 pay out, with organisers telling them they "could not lose".

Bristol Crown Court heard that committee members behind the scheme pocketed up to £92,000 each. Meanwhile 88% of those recruited to the scheme lost out – some as much as £15,000.

The scheme spread from Bath and Bristol to Gloucester, Bridgwater, Cheltenham, Torquay, Weston-super-Mare and Wales and was shrouded by a veil of secrecy for almost a year as members were banned from writing about it.

But the pyramid was uncovered by authorities when an employer in Bristol contacted Trading Standards to complain that the selling scheme was being promoted in his workplace.

Nine women, aged between 34 and 69, have now been prosecuted for the scheme, under new legislation in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Act 2008.

The masterminds

Following two lengthy trials in 2012 and 2013, and a retrial due to begin on Wednesday, six women have been convicted for their involvement in the pyramid scheme and a further three women were given suspended sentences for promoting the scheme.

Judge Mark Horton will sentence the three women, charts co-ordinator Mary Nash, 65, committee secretary Susan Crane, 68, and games coordinator Hazel Cameron, 54, in October.

Nash, Crane and Cameron all admitted operating and promoting the pyramid scheme.

Sally Phillips, 34, of Hengrove, Jane Smith, 50, of Bishopsworth, both in Bristol, and Rita Lomas, 49, of Whitchurch, Somerset admitted promoting the scheme in 2012.

Phillips received a three-month suspended prison sentence, Smith a four-month suspended sentence and Lomas a four-and-a-half month suspended sentence.

Chairman Laura Fox, 69, Jennifer Smith-Hayes, 69, and Carol Chalmers, 68, were convicted of operating and promoting the scheme during a trial in 2012.

Fox, of East Harptree, Smith-Hayes of Bishopsworth and Chalmers, of Weston-super-Mare, were sentenced to nine months' imprisonment.

No verdict was reached following two trials of Tracey Laurence, 60, of Bradley Stoke, South Gloucestershire, while Rhalina Yuill, 34, of St George, Bristol was acquitted of promoting a pyramid scheme on her second trial.