If a penniless truck driver from Yorkshire, whose property portfolio doesn't even include a house, offers to sell one of London's most luxurious hotels for £350 million ($756.6 million) less than its value, the deal might sound too good to be true.

And so it proved for wealthy developers hoodwinked by Anthony Lee, who was jailed this week for five years for what a judge described as an "elaborate and outrageous scam".

That was, if anything, an understatement. Lee had never completed a property sale in his life - but his audacious attempt to "sell" the Ritz hotel got so far he was able to extract a £1 million deposit from the buyers he had lined up for the London landmark.

Lee's plan, which he codenamed Project Notting Hill, began in 2006 when he contacted Karen Maguire, a director of Property-Source.com, a company specialising in finding properties for private clients.

Lee claimed he was a "close friend and associate" of the reclusive billionaire brothers, Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay, owners of the prestigious hotel in London's Piccadilly, and that he planned to buy the Ritz for £200 million.

The self-proclaimed "straight-talking Yorkshireman" said he wanted to then sell the hotel for, in the words of the prosecuting barrister, Anuja Dhir QC, "the bargain price of £250 million".

The truck driver told Maguire he would split the £50 million profit with her if she found a buyer.

But the Barclays had never heard of Lee and were unaware he was claiming to be able to sell the hotel, which they had bought for £80 million in 1995 and was, at the time, valued at between £450 million and £600 million.

Unaware of this, Maguire put Lee in contact with Terence Collins, a London-based property developer. Collins agreed to buy the hotel for £250 million and planned to sell it to Marcel Boekhoorn, a property magnate.

With a chain of investors in place, Lee demanded a £1 million deposit. When the money was paid into an Irish bank account in Lee's name, the deal, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit a snag.

Lee, who was on trial alongside Patrick Dolan and Conn Farrell, claimed he had accepted a better offer - of £470 million - for the hotel. But, as the deposit was non-returnable, he kept the £1 million and claimed it was money Collins owed him for unrelated property deals.

Dhir told the court: "In that competitive world of secret multimillion-pound deals, some people are prepared to take risks that might seem breathtaking to most of us. Millions of pounds can be made and lost on transactions for trophy properties like the Ritz. What sets this transaction apart from most is that it was all based on one great big lie."

Last month, Lee, an undischarged bankrupt who had a police caution for theft and was behind with his rent at the time of the scam, was found guilty of obtaining the £1 million by deception.

Judge Stephen Robbins told him on Wednesday: "You were found guilty by a jury of this elaborate and outrageous scam. This con or scam or sting, whatever term is used, was probably motivated by your mistaken belief Terry Collins had deprived you of another potentially lucrative deal and it may be this offence was done out of revenge."

Lee was acquitted, alongside Dolan and Farrell, of conspiracy to defraud. Dolan was alleged to have been Lee's partner in the scam and Farrell their solicitor. But the latter two were acquitted, claiming they thought they were working on a legitimate deal.

Dolan, 68, a former construction manager, admitted he had received £435,000 of the £1 million deposit. But he explained that he had spent it on gambling, horses and paying off his mortgage. "I had a good time," he told the jury. "A wise man told me there's no shops in the graveyard."

Despite his deception, Lee might never have come before the courts had it not been for a High Court judge - and a particularly determined detective. After being stung by Lee, Collins sued him and won. The High Court judge said the case amounted to fraud and should be investigated. It was referred to North Yorkshire Police, where Detective Sergeant Garry Ridler worked on the case alone. He was at Southwark Crown Court to see Lee sentenced.

He described the result as "highly satisfying" and added: "The sheer size and scale of the deception was truly unbelievable, and the fact it related to such a world-renowned business such as the Ritz made the investigation that bit more challenging.

"Lee also claimed to be an affluent businessmen when in reality he was a bankrupt. He had started numerous property deals. However he had never successfully closed a single deal apart from the £1 million, subject of this case, that he obtained through lies and cheating. To put it bluntly, Anthony Lee had never made a single penny from his dealings in property."

DREAM WORLD
* The claim: Anthony Lee said he was a "close friend and associate" of the billionaire Barclay brothers and that he wanted to buy London's Ritz hotel and sell it on for a quick profit.

* The reality: He was a bankrupt truck driver who had never sold a property.

- Independent