By Rory Cassidy

A BARRHEAD hairdresser was among a string of victims duped out of more than a quarter-of-a-million pounds by a callous conman.

Maxine McFarlane, of Harpers Salon, got caught up in a dodgy pyramid scheme operated by Stewart Kennedy.

He conned his victims out of a total of £265,000 after encouraging them to buy franchises in his business, while he gave their money to other investors and spent their earnings on foreign jaunts and a lavish lifestyle.

The 52-year-old fraudster told investors they would receive a minimum of £4,600 per month for 10 months as a return on each £15,000 they invested.

He said the money would come from carrying out debt restructuring services for people and businesses within the postcode area “owned” by each franchisee.

Kennedy brought in £247,405 through the sale of franchises and then spent nearly £30,000 on two trips to America just weeks apart while many of the investors failed to receive a single penny back.

He visited the US twice in early 2011, at a total cost of over £28,000, withdrew £144,266 in cash from the company account and also used the account to pay for clothes and jewellery.

Kennedy visited New York and Florida and went on a Disney cruise, as well as trips to Greece. He also bought jewellery for his wife and tickets to Rangers games.

From the company account, he also paid for his son’s £1,400-per-month flat in London and kept around £25,000 in cash in case he needed it.

Kennedy denied he had done anything wrong during his month-long trial at Paisley Sheriff Court.

He insisted his scheme was “the financial opportunity of a lifetime” for those he conned and told the court: “I believe I was grossly underpaid, based on the hours I put in.

“I’m entitled, as the owner of the company, to take money to pay for bills and, the last time I looked, I don’t believe it’s a crime to go on holiday.”

At the close of evidence in the case, procurator fiscal depute David McDonald told the court: “Stewart Kennedy built a house of cards, making false representations about the success of the business, issuing guarantees he had no intention of keeping, making others believe their franchises were a success by paying them with other franchisees’ investments and spending a fortune on himself and his family.”

He added: “This was, indeed, ‘the financial opportunity of a lifetime’ – for him.”

Kennedy’s Cost Reduction Services (CRS) firm helped people and companies reduce their outgoings by restructuring their debts.

He then sold CRS franchises for £15,000 each through a firm called Easyearn, which would see investors given £575 for every completed debt rearrangement made by CRS within the franchisee’s postcode area.

But CRS stopped completing debt rearrangements and Kennedy began paying franchisees using payments received from other investors.

Among the victims were cancer consultant Hosney Yosef, pharmacist Yassir Shaheen, project manager Osamah Shaheen, former deputy headteacher Mary Scott, former financial consultant Sanjay Bhaduri, ex-law lecturer Manjit Bhogal, property investor Pauline Bailey, joiner Andrew Aitken, mechanic Michael Barrett, pub owner Brian McGeoch, retired homeowner Carole Reid and unemployed Allan Walker.

Also duped was plumber Stuart Caldwell, who gave Kennedy a total of £33,000 and never got any of the cash back.

When Mr Caldwell went to Kennedy’s home in Quarriers Village to find out what had happened to his investment, the thug attacked him with a baseball bat.

Last week, a jury convicted Kennedy of three charges – two of fraud relating to the £247,405 in franchise sales and an £18,000 loan from Mr Caldwell and one of assault relating to the baseball bat attack.

As he continued Kennedy’s bail and deferred sentence until next month for background reports, Sheriff Seith Ireland said he could be caged for the offences, committed between April 2010 and August 2011.