A Victorian travel agent with a pokies problem stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from holidaymakers who were forced to cancel their vacations because of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Annette Roberts diverted funds into her own bank accounts in 522 transactions
- Her employers have been forced to delay their retirement because of her crimes
- Lawyers acknowledge a jail term is appropriate
Annette Roberts, 58, was meant to refund the cash, which was being held by Travel and Cruise North East in Wangaratta.
Instead, she used it to fuel a profound gambling addiction which left her spinning the slots during her lunch break and online during lockdown.
The Benalla mother of two on Tuesday appeared in the County Court of Victoria, where she pleaded guilty to two fraud charges that ultimately forced her bosses to sell two homes, including a property willed to them by a dead relative.
The former travel agent apologised to her victims, telling them of her regret and shame.
“I would like to sincerely apologise for my theft and the hurt and pain I have caused you both,” Roberts said through her lawyer.
“I’m so devastated and sorry for all the betrayal of trust and financial hardship, anxiety and embarrassment that I have caused from my stupid, unlawful actions.”
But Judge Michael McInerney told the court the apology was of little comfort to her victims.
“I’m certain that apology would be a lot better if she had $600,000 to go with it, but unfortunately she hasn’t,” the judge said.
“It’s nowhere near the loss that these two business operators have suffered.”
Judge McInerney also took aim at poker machines.
“We’ve got a community where our government decided to introduce this scourge into our community and lives off it to [the tune of] millions and millions of dollars,” the judge said.
“To have people able to use them online is really an abomination if ever I’ve heard of one.
“That’s what’s so obnoxious about this sort of crime, that this loss to people occurred to no-one else’s benefit but the proprietors of poker machines.
“Everyone else is decimated so they can make profit. It’s really outrageous.”
Roberts diverted funds in 522 transactions
Roberts started working as an agent at Travel and Cruise North East in 2017, but began stealing from the business within months.
She had been funding her gambling problem with short-term loans that were already “out of control”, according to her defence lawyer.
But when her losses blew out further, she turned to her employers.
Between April 2018 and September 2020, Roberts skimmed $628,598 by re-diverting refunds into her own bank accounts in 522 transactions.
During that period, she also stole $40,636 by putting the cash on prepaid travel money cards in the names of clients.
Her scheme unravelled when a client called up the business to enquire about a refund she was expecting.
The 58-year-old was confronted by her bosses and initially claimed she had put the money into the wrong account.
But an investigation by their bank found it had actually been sent to her own coffers.
Prosecutors on Tuesday revealed that she repaid about $22,500 before she sent an email to her victims and told them that she had “exhausted every avenue”.
She then proposed a $250 per week payment plan, in addition to a lump sum of about $30,000, before her crimes were referred to police.
Roberts later told investigators that she had gambled away the cash on the digital pokies with the intention of paying back her workplace and the clients she pilfered from.
“This got desperate when I realised that I was not winning the amounts needed and have caused an obsession,” she told them.
Business owners forced to delay retirement
On Tuesday, Kay Reid, who owns Travel and Cruise North East with her husband Bruce, spoke of the devastating impacts the crime had on her family.
“The fact that an employee within our organisation could do this is soul destroying,” Ms Reid said.
She and her husband have had to sell two properties in Bright, including one left to them by her husband’s mother, which they used to pay back their clients.
“Despite none of our clients being out of pocket over this embezzlement, we are now deeply concerned and anxious,” she said.
Ms Reid revealed the couple were forced to delay their retirement because of the crime, along with the impact of bushfires and the pandemic.
They have since closed three of their four offices and let go most of their small workforce.
“Our loss from this theft has forced our hand for survival and we had to do all we can to remain in business.”
Roberts was on Tuesday taken into custody and will be sentenced in September.
Her lawyers have acknowledged that a jail term is appropriate.