A WOMAN who helped her fraudster boyfriend rip of solar panel customers all over Devon and Somerset has been banned from running any other businesses.

Paula McGarel acted as office manager at Taunton-based Intelligent Solar, which was run by her partner Mark McCracken and which left customers with almost useless solar power systems.

McCracken was jailed at Exeter Crown Court two weeks ago and McGarel was allowed to walk free with a suspended sentence today (Thursday) after admitting a single offence of fraudulent trading.

Her role was the day to day running of the business at its offices in Courtland Business Park in Taunton and she helped swindle £27,000 from customers who tried to cancel their contracts.

She either refused to return deposits when they exercised their legal rights to pull out of deals or imposed illegal charges for cancelling contracts.

Customers from all over Devon and Somerset were sold solar panels through high pressure sales tactics and should have been allowed to change their minds during a 14 day cooling off period.

Some customers who had panels installed found that the promised rates of return were not achieved or that they were unable to sell surplus power back to the grid because Intelligent Solar did not have the proper certification.

One elderly customer from Exmouth worked out he would have to live to be 107 to break even on his investment.

McGarel, aged 54, of Kimberley Park, Bideford, admitted one count of fraudulent trading and was jailed for a year, suspended for 18 months and ordered to do 180 unpaid community work by Judge David Evans.

She was banned from being a director or managing any company for four years.

At an earlier hearing, McCracken, aged 44, of Hestercombe Close, Bridgwater, admitted fraud, unfair trading, breach of bankruptcy rules and offering financial advice without authorization. He was jailed for two years and six months by the same judge.

Judge Evans told McGarel: ‘You failed to return deposits when customers exercised their legal right to cancel or charged illegitimate fees if they did so.

‘You knew full well from previous experience that refunds had to be made when customers cancelled.’

Mr Alec Small, prosecuting, said McGarel had responsibility for the ‘day-to-day’ management of Intelligent Solar’s office in Taunton and was the main point of contact for customers trying to exercise their right to pull out of contracts.

Training materials recovered by Trading Standards Officers showed she knew and understood the rules about refunding deposits but did not apply it.

Mr Barry White, defending, said McGarel was under the sway of McCracken, who was the driving force in the company and who sent her messages berating her for ‘backchat’ when she failed to comply with his wishes.

She felt she had no option but to take part in the fraudulent activity because to do otherwise would mean the loss of her job, her relationship and her home.