Cheated: Dunkirk veteran Bernard Bannon lost £70,000 to ruthless post scammers before he died aged 98
The French Riviera is renowned for its beautiful beaches and glitzy lifestyle. A playground for the rich and famous, the sunny Cote d’Azur attracts hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers every year.
Yet not far from the tourist hotspot of Nice lies the headquarters of a major junk mail operation. Earlier this year, Money Mail revealed how a 98-year-old Dunkirk veteran had lost £70,000 to ruthless post scammers before he died. Bernard Bannon, from Liverpool, had been bombarded with misleading letters suggesting he’d won thousands of pounds in prizes.Many promised to send a cheque if he paid a fee or ordered something from their accompanying catalogues — but, after doing so, Bernard never received a penny.
One of the culprits was a French company called Phyderma, to which the former Royal Engineer paid £4,903 in little over three years. So Money Mail decided to track down its headquarters and confront the man in charge.
After a lengthy investigation, we located Phyderma’s offices in a business park in Mougins, a pretty village surrounded by pine and olive trees where Pablo Picasso spent the last 12 years of his life.
The mail itself isn’t manufactured here — but this is where the firm’s customer service and general operations are based.
It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning and casually dressed employees are starting to arrive at work at the three-storey building. Throughout the morning, staff pop down to the entrance of the building for cigarette breaks.
But, when we approach to speak to them, they pretend to be on the phone or quickly duck back inside the office.
The building belongs to a company called New Stefal Holding, of which Phyderma is a subsidiary brand.
The firm has been in business for 11 years and has around 56 employees. Last year, it reported an annual turnover of more than €30 million.
HQ: French company Phyderma, to which former Royal Engineer Bernard paid £4,903 in little over three years, is based Frances’ sunny Cote d’Azur
The holding company owns all sorts of businesses, but specialises in long-distance selling. Two of these brands, Phyderma and Vital Nature, send mail to the UK.
Phyderma describes itself as a beauty product and food supplement developer.
Its catalogue, sent to Bernard in 2014, includes ‘footbath salts with extracts of arnica, seaweed and peppermint’, priced at £17.80 for two and a 15-day supply of ‘Krill-algic’, a food supplement designed to reduce joint stiffness at £19.99.
Vital Nature’s website claims that it has developed ‘treatments, cosmetics and food supplements that are formulated with natural active agents and ingredients’.
However, these cosmetics firms have a cynical side. Along with their catalogues, they include cleverly worded letters suggesting the recipient has won fantastic prizes worth thousands of pounds.
They hint that all you need to do to claim the money is fill in your bank details and perhaps make a modest order. In fact, the small print reveals you are only being invited to enter a prize draw — the money is far from guaranteed.
Multi-millionaire Stéphane Alech , 53, runs both Phyderma and Vital Nature — along with more than a dozen other brands
Often, these types of firms send letters to as many addresses as they can in the hope some respond. Or they may use so-called sucker lists to share the details of households who have previously responded to these competitions.
Make no mistake, the mail is helping to make one man very rich indeed. Multi-millionaire Stéphane Alech, 53, runs both Phyderma and Vital Nature — along with more than a dozen other brands.
Born in Cannes and with a perfumier grandfather, Mr Alech says he has always been interested in fragrance and beauty products.
In his early career, he worked as an operation manager at the French sports chain Decathlon before joining a sales group in Nice.
In 2004, he left to launch his own business, selling nutritional supplements and cosmetics to England, Germany and France.
The company, Agence de Marketing Appliqué, was based in Belgium and sent catalogues to UK residents under the brand names Vital Beauty and Swiss Home Shopping — and later Phyderma and Vital Nature.
One Vital Beauty letter addressed to Bernard reads: ‘The cheque for £10,500 is ready to be dispatched.’
In 2005, the then UK consumer watchdog, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), launched an investigation into whether the mail was misleading.
The regulator said the letters ‘appeared to notify UK consumers of a major prize win and linked claiming the prize, or receiving it more quickly, to the making of a payment when, in fact, no purchase was necessary’.
In 2007, Agence de Marketing Appliqué promised to make changes to its letters to clarify how its competitions worked.
But the OFT continued to receive complaints and referred the issue to its Belgian counterpart, the Directorate-General Enforcement and Mediation.
In 2011, a judge at a Belgian court ruled that the Vital Beauty and Swiss Home Shopping letters were illegal and put in place an injunction to stop them being sent to residents in France and the UK.
Agence de Marketing Appliqué appealed the decision, but lost. The following year, the firm claimed it had ceased sending letters to the UK and France.
Victim: Veteran Bernard Bannon with wife Rosaleen on their wedding day in May 1941
However, Mr Alech has continued to send similar mail under its other brand names, Phyderma and Vital Nature.
One Phyderma letter received by Bernard reads: ‘It is GUARANTEED: the cheque for £143,572.20 in play will imperatively be released!’
The letter suggests that, in order to claim the money, the winner must first order an item from the catalogue. If the customer doesn’t, someone else who has placed an order will receive the prize, it adds.
Tiny print on a separate order form states no purchase is necessary.
Royal Mail claims the majority of this type of mail is now blocked from entering the UK after stricter checks were introduced in 2016.
An industry-wide code of practice was launched after a Mail investigation revealed how conmen were using the Royal Mail’s lucrative bulk mail contracts to target the elderly. Since 2016, Royal Mail says it has blocked 4.6 million items of scam mail.
But, despite improved security, some post is still getting through. One reader told us his mother was still receiving letters from Phyderma in February.
A spokesperson for anti-scam campaign Operation Repeat says: ‘We know that Phyderma and Vital Nature were certainly still sending mail to the UK in June when we last received an update.’
Eventually, we found someone at the Phyderma office in Mougins who would contact the customer service team on our behalf. But we were informed that Mr Alech was unavailable to meet us in person.
Money Mail reporter Fiona Parker pictured outside the NSH office in Mougins with some of the firm’s misleading letters
Mr Alech, who is understood to be a regular at the Royal Mougins Golf Resort — where membership costs €30,000 a year — is a busy man.
As well as New Stefal Holding, which has 16 subsidiary businesses, he owns a jewellery brand called Misaki Monaco, which is sold in more than 40 countries.
After some back and forth, Mr Alech agreed to speak to us via a translator on the telephone. Almost immediately, he promised to stop all shipments to the UK market from this month. He also insisted the letters were not scam mail.
He says: ‘For many years, we have been trying to have constructive conversations with UK authorities, but we haven’t succeeded. They want the messages to be different, but without telling us how they want them to be different.’
When asked if he thinks his company is ‘moral’, he says: ‘It’s tough, the big debate between morality and the law.
We don’t try to trick our clients in trying to hide anything.’ Mr Alech says he has 15 people in his customer service team on hand to help anyone struggling to understand the letters.
He adds: ‘It’s true there could be certain exceptional cases that get past our customer service.
‘But there are certain clients who can’t be bothered to call or write to us for more explanation.’
Bernard Bannon’s son, Lenny, 73, welcomed the news that the mail would no longer be sent to the UK, but remained sceptical.
Bernard Bannon’s son, Lenny, 73, welcomed the news that the mail would no longer be sent to the UK, but remained sceptical
The retired construction worker says: ‘I felt sick when I found out how much my dad had lost. I hadn’t realised he was in such a bad way because he was so secretive. I hope this is it and the mail doesn’t just crop up under a different name.’
Louise Baxter, head of the National Trading Standards Scams Team, says: ‘It’s encouraging to see evidence of our work to disrupt misleading mail targeted at vulnerable consumers is working and that sources of potential scam mail are being deterred from operating here.’
Marilyn Baldwin OBE, founder of anti-scam charity Think Jessica, says: ‘Phyderma, Vitamail and Vital Beauty were sending mail to my mother 16 years ago. I hope Mr Alech keeps to his word and does not send any more across the Channel.’
A Royal Mail spokesperson says: ‘We identify scam mail using a range of different methods, but, despite our best efforts, occasionally a small amount may get through our net.
‘Customers who want to report a concern can write to Freepost Scam Mail, email email@example.com or call 0800 011 3466.’
A Phyderma and Vital Nature spokesman confirmed Mr Bannon was a customer, adding: ‘We regret not to have been informed earlier about his situation.’
But the firm refused to hand back any of his money. The spokesman adds: ‘Our games are legitimate and regulated in strict compliance with European and English law.
‘The full rules of the game always accompany each message, ensuring every customer receives clear and fair information.’ He claimed all games that offer prizes above €10,000 are free with no purchases required.
And just 25 miles away: Another firm’s legacy of distress
Just 25 miles down the road from Phyderma is the last known address of another junk mail operation, Promondo.
Based in the village of Carros, near the French-Italian border, Promondo received £6,683 of Bernard’s money.
It sent letters and catalogues under the brand name Vitamail. One letter sent to Bernard claimed he had won a ‘1st Prize Cheque’ for £15,000.
It said he needed to order something from the accompanying catalogue to receive the cheque, and suggested that he buy two bottles of ‘circulation cream’ for £34.80.
When Money Mail reached the warehouse where the company was once based, a bus driving school had taken over the building.
But locals remember all too well the damage the firm caused its victims.
The Association Syndicale Libre du Lotissement Industriel de Carros acts as a local trade union. A front-desk representative says the organisation had become a point of contact for Promondo victims who had lost money.
She adds: ‘I have never forgotten the distressed phone calls we received on a regular basis about that business. Some of them were in tears as they asked if we could do anything about it.’
Marseille lawyer Isabelle Terrin says in 2010 she successfully represented one 83-year-old Promondo victim who had lost €5,000. The pensioner, Arlette Zinah, had been tricked into thinking she’d won a cash prize worth €215,000 — she just needed to order some items from the catalogue to claim it.
In 2010, a Court of Appeal judge ordered the firm to pay the pensioner €188,917, which included interest from when the proceedings began in 2008, as well as her legal costs.
Ms Terrin says she tried to help dozens more clients who had been targeted by similar scams, but was unsuccessful.
She says: ‘These companies aim to trick people who are usually older or vulnerable, sometimes sick and maybe do not have good memories.
I stopped taking on these cases two or three years ago because I realised it was impossible to win.’
It is not known when Promondo left Carros, but a company called SOGIF Holding AG bought the Vitamail logo in 2011 when it launched in Baar, Switzerland. The firm went into liquidation in May 2015.