Top Tory donor’s failed property firm left hundreds out of pocket in India
Exclusive: Sam Singh set up a business with ‘cash for access’ Tory chair and met Boris Johnson. But in India, Singh’s former clients say they’ve lost their life savings
Sam Singh has friends in high places. The Indian-born businessman has bragged about Boris Johnson staying at his Bedfordshire mansion and has personally donated at least £310,000 to the Conservative Party in less than a decade.
Singh has also been a trustee of an elephant charity headed by Prince Charles and went into business with Charles’s nephew, Ben Elliot, the Conservative co-chair currently embroiled in a ‘cash for access’ scandal involving Prince Charles and another leading Conservative funder.
But there is another, less glamorous, side to the Sam Singh story. In India, hundreds blame the company he founded for losing their life savings, after the online estate agency he built collapsed, prompting accusations of fraud, an openDemocracy investigation has found.
“They have closed and they have taken my hard-earned money,” says ‘Dinesh’, an elderly Indian retiree who lives near New Delhi, who asked that his real name not be used.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Like many others, Dinesh accuses India Homes of failing to honour a cashback discount agreement on his property purchase, short-changing him of thousands of pounds.
“I’m a senior citizen. I’m 75-plus," he says. "I need this money.”
Singh founded India Homes’s parent company in 2007, and was a director until March 2016, when he resigned weeks before the collapse, leaving his father as sole director. On his LinkedIn profile, Singh said he “stepped down from the company at the height of its success.”
Despite his old age, Dinesh says he has made seven visits to India Homes’s head office on the outskirts of Delhi and has made a police complaint, alleging he bought a home from the company with the promise of a significant discount redeemable after purchase.
Dinesh says the money never arrived – and he’s not the only one. India’s National Consumer Complaint forum displays a long list of near-identical allegations against the company. Someone has even set up a website dedicated to it.
I’m a senior citizen. I’m 75-plus. I need this money
The promise, the complainants say, came in the form of discount credit notes, some for as much as £15,000. But in April 2016, before this money could be redeemed, the company shut up shop. Investors pulled out amid stories about regulatory difficulties and cash-flow problems.
Customers tried but failed to contact Singh. Since then, customers say the company has been unresponsive and that they have been unable to get their money back. Some say they lost their life savings.
Dinesh says Indian police officers told him Singh was “untraceable”. But he wasn’t hiding – he’d just moved. Singh says he became non-resident in India in 2013, and he legally changed his first name from Gursamarjit to Sam in late 2016.
While some India Homes customers have been left trying to reclaim their money, Singh has been splashing his cash and securing a place at the heart of the British establishment.
The numbers are impressive, including £15,000 he donated to Theresa May the day after she won the Tory leadership contest in July 2016. Just two months earlier, India Homes had suspended operations without paying Dinesh and others the money they allege they had been promised.
Gursamarjit Singh donated more than £270,000 to the Conservatives until late 2017 – nearly a year after he had abandoned that name. Since then, the name ‘Sam Singh’ has often appeared in lists of political donors, giving thousands to the Tories ahead of Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election victory.
But the relationships go beyond finance. Posts on Singh’s Instagram account, which appears to have been deleted, include a note, apparently signed by Johnson that reads “What a fantastic weekend we had at Hinwick House!” Singh denies knowing Johnson, saying they met only once and that the Prime Minister stayed at his Bedfordshire mansion “as a guest of someone who hired the venue”.
Singh dined with May and the Conservative cabinet at least four times between 2015 and 2017, according to records from before the party stopped publishing details of its exclusive Leader’s Group dinners.
In 2018, he also chaired a Tory fundraising group, the Conservative Business and Entrepreneurs Forum, which has an annual membership fee of £3,000.
Questions have been raised about Conservative Party funding in recent weeks, after it emerged that an ‘Advisory Group’ of leading Tory donors have been holding regular off-record meetings with Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak.
Tory co-chair, Ben Elliot, was accused of “access capitalism” after it emerged that his company, Quintessentially, had organised a dinner between a leading donor, Mohamed Amersi, and Prince Charles.
The parallels with Singh’s experience of the Tory funding machine are strong.
Like Amersi, Singh seems to have had access to the upper echelons of British society. He was listed as a trustee of the Elephant Family, a charity whose patrons include Elliot, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
Singh seems to have had access to the upper echelons of British society
The parallels don’t end there. Rishi Khosla invested in Singh’s Indian operation and his latest UK business. In June, Khosla, founder of OakNorth bank, hosted what the FT described as “an exclusive gathering” of Elliot’s Advisory Group of Tory donors – who give more than a quarter of a million pounds a year.
Singh and Elliot set up a property technology business in 2017, alongside a number of other investors.
Singh registered as a director of Real World Technologies under his old name, Gursamarjit, which he had changed by deed poll the previous year. It is an offence to make a misleading, false or deceptive statement, under the Companies Act 2006.
Elliot has not been involved in the company since 2019, but retains a small shareholding and is still featured on the firm’s website.
The Conservative Party did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.
The IndiaHomes.com scandal
Just 18 months before India Homes collapsed and after he had become non-resident in the country, Singh published a book titled ‘Winning in India’.
“He has definitely won in India,” complains one customer who says he is still owed thousands of dollars.
Another customer, Sumit Gautam, says he spent five years chasing India Homes, even sending an official complaint to the Indian government.
Gautam says he developed stress and hypertension because of the “callous attitude” of the company. “There is no end to our trauma,” he wrote.
“I feel swindled of my hard-earned money,” wrote Miheer Brahme. “I think they are taking individual clients for a ride,” wrote another customer, Abhishek Jhawar. “If all the suffering people can unite, I am sure we can find a way out.”
Dozens of angry homebuyers have joined online forums and WhatsApp groups to discuss what to do. openDemocracy has seen groups named ‘Indiahomes cheated cust[omers]’ and ‘United Against IndiaHomes’.
“This company is a big fraud,” wrote Kiran Lal. “All their contact numbers are fake and not working. We all should unite.” Since the business closed, its registered address has changed location three times.
‘Nothing Made Sense’
As well as making promises to customers, IndiaHomes told investors it would revolutionise the property sales sector by using artificial intelligence to convert customer voicemails into ‘leads’ that could be sold to estate agents.
The company, which began trading in 2009 under a different name, reportedly raised around £60m from private equity investment. At the peak of the Indian property boom in 2014, Singh claimed it would become a billion-dollar business.
At the same time, Singh appears to have been preparing for a new life outside India. In June 2013, Singh became a Dominican citizen, having acquired a passport from the Caribbean island, where a citizenship-by-investment scheme offers passports in return for as little as $100,000.
India Homes ceased trading in early 2016, writing off more than £5.5m in bad debt and unbilled revenue.
When the company failed, a former executive of India Homes told an Indian journalist that “nothing made sense”.
“It was a very basic audio-recording software that they had developed. We just couldn’t understand the need for it or why it cost them so much.”
The ‘Churchill Room’
While India Homes wasn't able to find money to pay Dinesh back, Singh doesn't seem to have been short of cash to spend on himself.
In December 2014, Singh paid £4m for Hinwick House, a 12-bedroom stately home in Bedfordshire. Singh reportedly spent a similar figure renovating the property, which is let out for weddings and events. In late 2016, he put it up for sale, initially at an asking price of £12.5m, which was later slashed to £8.5m. The mansion now appears to have been taken off the market.
People who have been inside the property confirmed to openDemocracy that it is strewn with photographs of Singh and his American wife with May, Johnson and other senior Tories. The shot of Singh with the current Prime Minister takes pride of place on one of the walls.
Hinwick House also features a ‘Churchill Room’ in tribute to the wartime Conservative prime minister.
Johnson and other senior Tories have reportedly stayed at Hinwick House. Singh says that if they have visited, it was as guests of people who hired the venue.
Singh has also rubbed shoulders with royalty. In 2017, he was listed as a trustee of the Elephant Family, a charity whose patrons include Charles, the Prince of Wales, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and her nephew, Ben Elliot.
It was in that same year that Singh set up Real World Technologies with Elliot and another long-standing Conservative, Tory peer Baroness Rock. Conservative donor Rishi Khosla also invested.
Real World Technologies, which used the brand name Tripler, appears to have offered a similar service to that promised by India Homes: “virtual super agents” to help estate agents exploit “voice leads” and identify potential customers.
Baroness Rock described it as a “forward thinking and dynamic business” in a promotional article in 2018. Rock has since stepped down as a director but also has a small shareholding.
Real World Technologies initially raised around £1.25m and Singh says it was awarded a research and development grant by HMRC. The company registered a loss of £2.5m in 2019, according to accounts filed with Companies House. The firm’s current accounts are overdue.
Dinesh, meanwhile, is still waiting for his money.
A spokesperson for Sam Singh said: "Mr Singh sold the majority of the business of IndiaHomes to venture capital investors in 2010-12 and stepped down as Managing Director in April 2015. No credit notes issued by IndiaHomes were not paid while Mr Singh controlled the business. He received no payments from India Homes after he stepped down as Managing Director.
“Mr Singh is a serial entrepreneur, going by both his birth name Gursamarjit and his nickname Sam, which he adopted by deed poll when he moved to the UK. Since moving to the UK, he has established three English companies and a rapidly growing business. He is on the public record as a Conservative Party donor."
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