"This sort of scam works particularly well in the Lake District."
Sonia Malhi, aged 39, of Audenshaw, Greater Manchester, was jailed for 20 months for leading an audacious fraud which targeted luxury hotels, shops and restaurants.
Carlisle Crown Court heard she travelled from her home to dupe businesses across Cumbria during January 2020.
This involved using stolen receipts from card terminal transactions made by members of the public whose accounts were also then fleeced.
While accomplices used distraction techniques at numerous premises, Malhi sought to enter card numbers manually.
She paid for expensive rooms at luxury hotels, buying £75 bottles of champagne and requesting wrongly redirected refunds.
Malhi was at the forefront of the scams which amounted to almost £14,000.
They were committed in Keswick, West Cumbria and Kendal.
Art galleries were visited to steal receipts which were then used as the fraud continued.
One target was the Lodore Falls Hotel and Spa near Keswick.
Rooms costing £2,500 were booked despite the suspicions of a receptionist who was aware of similar scams in the area who later saw the fraudsters trying it on at a nearby business.
Another luxury hotel received a call from a woman asking for “the best rooms available for as long as possible”.
Tim Evans, prosecuting, said: “This sort of scam works particularly well in the Lake District.”
Malhi had also taken up the lesser role of a “distractor” and driver as copycat crimes running into thousands of pounds were committed in one day in Cheshire several weeks before travelling to Cumbria.
It formed part of larger-scale offending across the North West, Yorkshire and Leicestershire which had involved three Manchester-based sisters.
Lyndsey, Emmiline and Sarah Burdon were jailed in August 2020 after 150 bogus transactions, approximating £62,000.
They spent the money on luxury goods, holidays and services such as haircuts.
They targeted high-end shops in Cheshire. When shops were closed due to lockdown, they turned their attention to off-licences and petrol stations.
Of Malhi’s role in Cumbria, Mr Evans said:
“She is the leader of a group. She is the one who controls all the transactions.
“She is the one who has brought the methodology from her activities further south.”
“This is a sophisticated style of operation that really can be taken off the peg, of Cheshire or Merseyside, and used in Cumbria as it was.”
After suspicions were raised, Malhi was arrested in Kendal on January 26, 2020.
She later admitted two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, plus theft and illegal possession of both cocaine and a knuckleduster following a shoplifting spree in Chester during December 2019.
The court heard the mother-of-two had over 100 previous offences to her name, including 42 for fraud and similar offences, and 36 for theft.
Kate Hammond, defending, said Malhi had been in custody on remand since May 2020.
She said: “While she is no stranger to the criminal justice system, this period of incarceration has been extremely hard – harder than it would ever have been in the past.”
Ms Hammond spoke of inmates being locked up due to Covid-19 “for some considerable period of each and every day”. Prison visits were also confined to video calls.
She added: “She has missed two children’s birthdays while incarcerated. This period inside has been a salutary lesson to her.
“She did have a job and job prospects. She does have a home. Incarceration for eight months has put that in jeopardy.
“She is hopeful that, if released soon, she will be able to start the job again.”
Recorder Eric Lamb told Malhi:
“The sheer persistence of your involvement was demonstrated perhaps best by the way in which the proprietors of the (Kendal hotel), when they realised what was taking place, made contact with their fellow tradespeople in the area and discovered the awful truth of what was going on with you… in order to carry out this deception.”
Malhi was jailed for 20 months.