A JUNIOR accountant who stole tens of thousands of pounds from his employer claimed he needed ransom money to get his family out of a hostage crisis in Syria.
Gambling addict Muhammad Mahfouz, 29, set up two personal accounts while working as a junior accountant for Noble Egg Innovations Ltd, a leading food-manufacturing firm in Harrogate.
He used the money to transfer vast sums from the company account into his own funds while his supervisor, the senior accountant, was away on holiday, York Crown Court heard.
Bashir Ahmed, prosecuting, said Mahfouz - who came to the UK as a refugee in 2010 - made two cash transfers amounting to £36,253 before the company’s financial auditors discovered the audacious fraud.
Mahfouz was arrested and immediately owned up to the offences, but claimed that he had stolen to send ransom money to Damascus, the war-torn Syrian capital where he claimed his father and brother were being held hostage.
“He said he was under pressure from his mother to secure a ransom for their release,” said Mr Ahmed.
In fact, Mahfouz was in the grip of a gambling addiction and blew the money on his ever-growing habit.
“He said he withdrew the (stolen) cash from casinos to avoid suspicion and forwarded the money to a family friend in Damascus,” added Mr Ahmed.
The prosecutor said that when Mahfouz was granted asylum in the UK six years ago, he made no mention in his application papers about his family living in Syria, which is currently embroiled in civil war.
“He confirmed to the authorities in his asylum application that his parents and family lived in Egypt,” added the prosecutor.
Mahfouz, of Stonegate Close, Moortown, Leeds, appeared for sentence on Thursday after admitting two counts of fraud.
Mr Ahmed said Mahfouz, who worked in the financial department of the egg-products company, saw an opportunity to defraud the firm when the senior accountant took a holiday in July last year.
In the senior colleague’s absence, Mahfouz was entrusted to raise invoices for the company’s suppliers and authorise payments.
Taking advantage of his newly-elevated position, he concocted two fake payments to suppliers - one for £21,253, and a £15,000 payment, both of which ended up in two of his personal accounts via online banking.
The scam resulted in one of the firm’s suppliers not being paid, prompting an internal financial audit which unearthed the scam.
Mahfouz, known to friends and former colleagues as “Adam”, was sacked the following month but, ironically, it was for his poor time-keeping and work record - the fraudulent transactions having not come to light at that point.
Barrister Taryn Turner, for Mahfouz, said there was some evidence to suggest that the disgraced accountant had sent money to his family in Egypt, but conceded that the Syrian hostage tale was “nonsense”.
She added: “He came to this country to further his education. He is an intelligent man and a good worker, but his problem has been his addiction to gambling.
"He has blown a huge amount of money.”
Mrs Turner said Mahfouz’s gambling and fraud conviction had put his family in a “perilous” position despite the fact that his wife worked and they owned their own home.
She added that Mahfouz had landed a new job since his arrest with a company which apparently had no idea about his fraud conviction.
Judge Guy Kearl QC described the scam as “highly-sophisticated” and jailed Mahfouz for 20 months. He will be back in court in August for a financial-confiscation hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act.