Nest-egg to nightmare: Facebook scammer swindles $284k from victims

By Contributor

Tanya Cousins and Rick Mason are left living in a house bus after being scammed out of $36 000. Photo / Andrew Warner

By Hazel Osborne, Open Justice Multimedia Reporter

A Facebook Marketplace scammer who swindled his victims out of $284,000 using 15 different pseudonyms won't have to pay a cent of the money he stole back. Hazel Osborne reports.

Rick Mason and Tanya Cousins thought their prayers had been answered when they saw a self-contained unit for sale on Facebook.

The Whakatāne couple had recently sold their home to become mortgage free as both moved into early retirement due to illnesses.

When the sale of the house went through faster than anticipated, they bought a house bus to tide them over until something more permanent stood out.

A few months later a self-contained unit with an asking price of $36,000 popped up on Facebook Marketplace. It was listed by a woman called Deborah McKinley and was just what they were after.

What the couple didn't know at the time was that McKinley was just one of 15 different aliases for John Sinclair - a man now on home detention after scamming 28 victims out of $284,000 to fuel his gambling addiction.

Court documents reveal Mason and Cousins paid for the unit in April 2021 with two instalments of $18,000. They believed the money was going into the bank account of a company called Blue Ocean International Limited.

They transferred the first half while they waited for delivery, but were contacted three weeks later when Sinclair, still using the name "McKinley", said he needed a "cash injection" to complete another build, and offered a second cabin for their troubles.

When communication went cold, Cousins looked up the site address provided by "McKinley" and found herself staring at an empty lot on the screen.

She told Open Justice the realisation that they had just lost all of their savings was "absolutely gut-wrenching, like the bottom had fallen out from everything".

At that point Cousins and Mason went to the police, who informed the couple Sinclair was already on their radar.

"Now we're stuck where we are," said Mason referring to the bus that was never meant to be a permanent home.

"We know we've been condemned to finish off our days this way because we have no money left."

The scam: 'It was easy'

Sinclair, a father-of-five, used many ways to convince his victims to transfer their money, and the sophistication of his scams compounded over time.

The 34-year-old sold cabins, caravans and even a digger to his victims. None ever arrived.

In March 2021, using his alias Hayden McKinley, he approached Auckland-based cabin manufacturers Blue Ocean International Limited and began negotiations for several units.

The company provided him with prices and specifications for several cabins, as well as a company invoice that listed the details of the business. He did the same with other companies whose names were also unknowingly used, to convince victims of his legitimacy.

He used the information he gained from the companies to create false online listings. His listings were seen by people all around the country.

Sometimes Sinclair pretended to be husband-wife duo Deborah and Hayden McKinley. Other times he was father and son duo Arthur and Gareth Middleton.

Sinclair also morphed into Zephyr Harrison, Greg Mason, Donna Pollard or Grace Rutherford, shape-shifting between genders and ages. He was said to always be polite, friendly, helpful, and most of all seemed 100 per cent legitimate.

One of Sinclair's most prolific aliases was the McKinleys, supposedly operating under Blue Ocean.

A manager for Blue Ocean told Open Justice that Sinclair used the company's details, including invoices, but replaced their account number with his own.

Some of Sinclair's victims would be met with radio silence after a bank transfer was made, others were strung along by false promises. Some even showed up to an address given by Sinclair only to be greeted the by residents of those homes, who were as confused as his victims.

The victims felt reassured the trade was legitimate and genuine, because of the connection to existing registered businesses. The invoices they received looked legitimate as they included GST numbers, contact details and terms and conditions.

Sinclair told police he did what he did because he was "in a bad place and needed money" and "kept doing it because it felt easy".

But, his luck eventually ran out.

Victims: 'He's taken our money, our kids' security'

The court recently heard that Sinclair was a man with a serious gambling addiction.

He was in a vicious cycle of deception – scamming thousands from his victims and gambling it away in an attempt to win the money back. It is believed none of it remains, which means his victims are unlikely to ever see their money again.

In Wellington District Court last week, Judge Andrew Nicholls acknowledged that Sinclair was struggling with addictions and mental health.

While he said it was in no way an excuse for Sinclair's offending, the judge said it did show the driving force behind it.

He sentenced Sinclair, who had earlier pleaded guilty to 29 charges of obtaining by deception, to 12 months' home detention with an additional year of post-release conditions.

Mason and Cousins can't help but see the irony in that punishment, as the comforts of home are given to a man who stripped them of their own.

Various victims attended the hearing via video link, young and old faces peering out from the screen into the courtroom.

Many read powerful victim impact statements detailing the devastation that Sinclair's offending had caused them.

Kerry Pickering said she was buying a cabin to make room for her teen grandson, who had been sleeping on a mattress on the lounge floor. She paid $8000 for a cabin that never arrived. Sinclair had told her he wanted to sell to a family in need.

"To this day I still have major trust issues," Pickering said in court. "This caused enormous emotional stress and I became angry and untrusting of everyone... I feel I have lost the old me to John Sinclair."

Retiree Graeme Saxton and his wife lost $18,000 when they tried to buy a caravan to use to visit their only grandchild in 2021.

"(Sinclair) seemed so nice and genuine," Saxton said. "We're angry we got sucked in and devastated it happened to us.

"It's a lot of money to lose and we'll never be able to save that money back now because we're on the pension."

Anja and William Ines described how they were wary of buying online. But, because Sinclair had listed under the company Blue Ocean they felt confident in buying from him after doing their research and seeing it was a legitimate business.

The Ines family moved to New Zealand five years ago. Anja earns a wage as a cleaner. Last April she gave Sinclair about $6500 - most of what they had in their savings.

The ordeal has completely shaken her belief in people. "He's taken our money, he's taken our kids' security and most of all he's taken our family harmony," she said.

"Please don't allow him to do this to more people, it's obvious he won't stop because he doesn't care."

Police: 'He's self-centred and manipulative'

Sinclair, who was dressed in a spotless blue jumpsuit, fluoro high-vis vest and clean workboots - he says he works in landscaping now - was allowed to say a few words in court.

"I'm sorry for what I've done to you, I'm disgusted in myself when I hear the damage, I have caused you," he said.

"I don't want any more victims, I don't want to be this kind of person anymore."

He said he wanted to pay his victims back - but a reparation order was not made and will not bind him to this gesture.

Defence lawyer Charlotte Shade said her client was "hugely remorseful" and felt he needed to be punished, but would still like to continue his work as a landscaper.

Shade advocated for Sinclair to receive a sentence of home detention so he could continue providing for his young family.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Mike Stonyer said the police were unconvinced Sinclair was truthful when speaking about his new job. He said there was no formal proof, such as an IRD number, and questioned Sinclair's remorse.

"Police say he is as self-centred as before and extremely manipulative," he said.

Judge Nicholls said at sentencing that Sinclair had spent 103 days in custody and more than 10 months on electronically monitored bail, which was a sentence in itself.

He said prison would not address Sinclair's risk of offending, and a sentence of home detention would have the best chance at breaking his cycle of crime.

The judge said a reparation order from the courts couldn't legally be made considering Sinclair's past debt of $28,000 and the time it would take to pay his victims back.

"The facts are unfortunately the money you stole is gone," Judge Nicholls said. "There are no sums that you can pay back."

The judge said Sinclair had caused a lot of people a lot of harm.

No closure

Mason and Cousins are parents to a blended family of six and grandparents to 14.

Their poor health - Cousins has lupus and Mason is "disturbingly close" to dialysis from chronic diabetes and arthritis - is part of the reason they decided to downgrade the size of their home and move into early retirement.

Any spare money they have has now dwindled away and the couple say they are not living, but just existing, week to week.

Mason said Sinclair's remorse, his sentence and the justice system were laughable. He struggles to believe the apology Sinclair gave during the sentencing

"We've become collateral damage to his greed," he said.

He believes it's only a matter of time until Sinclair goes back to old habits.

"He's truly a criminal, he doesn't care about anyone ... the more people get to hear his name the better.''

The couple have now formed a group chat with other victims, who lean on each other as a place to vent.

"Unless you've been through it you don't really know how cruel it was ... it does feel good talking to people," Cousins said.

Their hatred for the man who swindled $36,000 from them will never go away. "It's the hate I can't fix," Mason said. "Out of this, there's no closure."