A GANG of fraudsters who came to York armed with cloned credit cards to swindle shopkeepers has been jailed for a total of ten-and-half years.

Judge Paul Hoffman, who yesterday handed down the sentences to four Malaysian nationals of Chinese origin, said they should serve as a deterrent to those who consider the UK a soft target.

He also warned that crimes involving false credit cards were becoming more prevalent.

York Crown Court heard that police caught the perpetrators red-handed after city centre security guards became suspicious about their activities.

The offenders - Chee Kien Chan, 29, of Colindale Avenue, London; Chin Ho Chew, 28, of Wallis Close, Battersea; and Wee Liang Chong, 31, and Kok Ng, 44, both no fixed address - all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obtain property by deception.

David Brooke, prosecuting, said they were believed to be illegal immigrants who came to York on January 12.

After staying in a hostel, they went into the city centre for breakfast at Bettys, paid for with false cards before using them at York stores to buy valuable goods, especially electrical equipment, clothes and vouchers.

Their spending spree amounted to about £3,500 of actual goods and £1,100 of attempted purchases, said Mr Brooke.

"They visited a number of outlets. Some of the cards were detected and detained, particularly Bank of China cards."

Suspicions were aroused and by 3pm a security guard had called the police, after following Chew from a Coney Street store into Starbucks, where he met Chong and Ng.

After their arrest, police discovered goods purchased that day using false credit cards.

Most of the evidence related to Ng, Chew and Chong. Chong was also found in possession of train tickets dated January 12 from Birmingham to York, and from London to Birmingham on January 11.

"It is the Crown's case that they carried out identity fraud in Birmingham and moved up to York," alleged Mr Brooke.

Evidence of Chan's involvement was "limited to one action in Superdrug" after he was seen on CCTV with a woman, attempting to buy goods.

They left before handing over a card, but he was then arrested at Starbucks. No false cards were found on him, but he gave a name and address, linking him with money transfers to Malaysia of £2,000 - evidence of which was found on Ng.

Afterwards the officers in the case, Sergeant Charlotte Scott and Detective Constable Craig Wilson, said it had taken a lot of work to bring the offenders to justice.

"We put in a lot of leg work - a 24-hour shift initially - on this case," explained Sergeant Scott.

Det Con Wilson said: "This crime has become more prevalent in the north of England. I think the judge has sent out the right message to everyone else wanting to commit offences like this in North Yorkshire."

Chew, now 28, left school at 12 and held labouring jobs. He got a work permit for Britain in 2001 and worked in a restaurant.

He became friends with his co-accused and said he became involved in cloned credit card use to support relatives in Malaysia. He was arrested for a similar offence in December and was believed to be on bail at the time of the York offence. He was jailed for three years.

Chong, 31, was described as "a man of good character who ruined that character ludicrously to improve his status when returning to his home country".

But Judge Hoffman jailed him for two-and-a-half years, saying: "You obtained nine credit cards which I do not doubt you have abused to their full potential."

Chan, 29, had little schooling in Malaysia but secured an engineering qualification. He came to Britain on an entry visa to study English.

His parents send him money, but after Christmas he was £500 short for rent.

No counterfeit cards were found on him when arrested in York but he was linked to the group after providing a name and address found on money transfers to Malaysia of £2,000.

He has not told his parents that he has been in custody since January. He was jailed for 18 months.

Ng, 44, had an import/export business in Malaysia which folded when he got into debt. He borrowed money from loan sharks, then came to Britain to find cash to repay his debt, using a tourist visa that has now expired. Within days, he was arrested in Selfridges, London, and jailed for six months for attempting to obtain property by deception. Following his release, he was caught red-handed in York. He said he committed his crime to get money to fly home, where his wife was pregnant. He has 68 days of his first sentence to complete plus three-and-a-half years for the York offences.

:: Judge's message

Judge Paul Hoffman told the gang: "This is a serious offence. You four men, operating as a team and in possession of numerous cloned credit cards, came to York dishonestly to obtain property by deception from retail and trade outlets. Judging by the number of cards in your possession, you intended to do this on a very substantial scale.

"You came to York presumably because you were not known here and felt you could act with impunity. We have enough home-grown criminals not to need offenders from other places. If you had not been arrested I do not doubt you would have carried on this dishonesty. Credit card fraud is common and easy to commit. It is difficult to detect and lately there has been a worrying increase in this prevalence of cloned cards.

"This sort of offending affects not only the defrauded retail outlet, but the costs are ultimately passed on to the public, who have to pay more for their goods."

He told Ng: "You told the probation officer with disturbing frankness that your motive in coming to the UK was specifically to commit credit card offences, having been persuaded to do so by criminals in Malaysia, from which it must follow that you and others regard the UK as a soft target. The sentence must therefore contain an element of deterrent for you and for others who are like-minded."

Updated: 10:06 Wednesday, July 06, 2005