Chester Zoo was tricked into paying a £1.26 million invoice into the bank account of a gang of fraudsters based in a closed Tapas restaurant, a court heard.
The world-famous attraction fell victim to a shockingly simple scam after receiving a letter from a contractor informing them their bank details had changed.
But the letter was a forgery and the new account related to a closed tapas restaurant owned by Ashad Ali, 40.
Within hours the money had been distributed to 28 different bank accounts, Bristol Crown Court heard.
Ali pleaded guilty to possessing £1.26 million of criminal property and has been given a suspended prison sentence along with three co-defendants.
The court heard how construction company Laing O’Rourke was contracted to carry out £17 million worth of work on a new ‘safari experience’ at Chester Zoo in 2013.
Shortly before a £1.25 million invoice was due to be issued, the zoo received an email purporting to be from the construction company’s finance team, asking for a change in the the bank account for invoicing.
Despite being on Laing O’Rourke headed notepaper, the signatures were forged and some of the names were completely made up, the court heard.
On November 27, 2013, Chester Zoo transferred £1,260,368.05 into the account details specified in the bogus document.
Within 90 minutes, the money - described by a judge as “a breathtaking sum” - was being distributed between 28 different bank accounts.
The alarm was raised the next day when it was realised the money had not landed in Laing O’Rourke’s bank account.
Some £50,000 was paid into an account in the name of Ali Motors, a company previously run by co-defendant Akhtar Ali.
A further £15,000 was sent from the Ali Motors account into that of Mohammad Arif, the owner of Heaton Chapel Motors.
Another £5,000 was paid to a fictional Ali Hassan - real name Mohammed Asif.
Initially all four denied any involvement until three changed their pleas but Akhtar Ali denied the charges until convicted by a jury.
Ashad Ali, of Luton, Beds, admitted being in possession of £1,260,368.05 of criminal property and transferring it by means of bank transfer.
Mohammad Asif, 35, of Nelson, Lancs, admitted being in possession of £5,000 criminal property.
Mohammad Arif, 36, of Nelson, Lancs, also admitted the same charge, to a value of £15,000.
Akhtar Ali, 47, of Nelson, Lancs, was convicted after a trial of being in possession of £50,000 of criminal property.
But despite the scale of the fraud the court heard that the four men were not the organisers of the scam and did not know how large it would be.
As a result, the men were all given suspended sentences.
Ashad Ali was given an 18 month sentence, suspended for 18 months, and given unpaid work.
Akhtar Ali was given a six month sentence, suspended for 12 months, and given unpaid work.
Asif and Arif were both given a community order and 150 hours unpaid work.