A FRAUDSTER from Lancashire has been given a six-year jail sentence over a £1.6m energy scam.

Steven Ricardo and his accomplices conned small businesses into believing that they could recover overpayments and VAT from energy suppliers.

Advance fees were paid out, often between £300 and £400, by more than 700 companies in the hope of recouping lost cash. But the overpayments never actually existed.

Ricardo, 45, of Daisy Fold, Chorley, was sentenced in his absence at Nottingham Crown Court after being convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and related offences.

Another Lancashire man, Max Thomas Bancroft, 27, from Burnley, was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence, with 200 hours community service, for his role in the enterprise.

Two other associates, David Wilkinson, 32, from Hucknall, Notts, and Ian McHugh, 54, of Westward Ho, Devon, were given two-year jail terms. A fifth man, Brian Witty, 76, from Hagley, near Birmingham, was conditionally discharged for 12 months.

Prosecutors say the fraudsters all worked for Corporate Energy Support Solutions and their associated companies, Utility Advice Centre and Utility Bill Saver and the offences took place between January 2011 and December 2015.

Refunds were often not due, the court heard, or the conmen acted without the customer's consent or knowledge, as well as failing to agree on commission rates.

False recordings of customers apparently giving consent for their energy account details to be accessed were also said to have been used.

One victim said later: "They said that we had been overcharged by the energy companies and that their scheme was a government backed scheme to make them repay the overcharge."

Lord Toby Harris, National Trading Standards chairman, added: "This case affected hundreds small businesses across the country."