A CONMAN posing as a property agent pocketed "legal fees" from home-seekers looking to rent houses and flats, a court heard.

Four women handed sums of between £86 and £236 to Raymond McDonald, believing he was arranging for them to move into properties in the Peterlee and Easington areas of County Durham.

But each heard nothing more from him and no arrangements were made for them to acquire the properties.

He was caught out, however, when a fifth client became suspicious and confronted McDonald.

Durham Crown Court was told that he confessed and agreed to hand himself in to police, who were informed of his activities by the woman.

McDonald made full admissions, saying he made £788 from the scam at the end of September and early October, last year.

Jennifer Haigh, prosecuting, said the first victim was put in touch with McDonald when she was considering renting property in Peterlee.

The others were told of his services by word of mouth, before the earlier victims discovered they had been duped.

McDonald, 33, of Windsor Street, Trimdon Station, County Durham, admitted four counts of obtaining by deception and one of attempting to obtain by deception.

Miss Haigh told the court that McDonald was jailed at Newcastle Crown Court, in November 2003, for similar charges when he pocketed £4,800 by taking people's money to supposedly buy items at auction, posing as an off-duty police officer to increase his plausibility.

Peter Schofield, mitigating, said that McDonald is an ex-Army PT instructor, who has competed in many sports, but excelled in martial arts.

Mr Schofield said McDonald, "got into trouble" in the Army and was disciplined, so he left as he felt his career was tarnished.

Following that, McDonald "lost his way completely", culminating in the offending, but Mr Schofield said he is now in a good job, with a steady relationship, and "has no desire" to offend again.

Judge Peter Armstrong told him: "You're obviously a plausible rogue and you targeted people who can ill afford to lose those sums, even though they were not great amounts."

He was given a nine-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, with an order to perform 150 hours' unpaid work and pay the £788 compensation within 14 days.