Five people have been sentenced for being part of a £5.2m publishing fraud which affected thousands of victims from across the country.
George Williams, who headed up Weinstein Williams Associates Ltd, and his operations manager Gayle Leahair, were found guilty by jury of conspiring to commit fraud by false representation and fraudulent trading.
Their sales manager Ronnie Llloyd and four sales reps Tony O'Neil, Martin Cullen, George Randles and Joanne Martin all pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit fraud by false representation.
The seven were put before the courts thanks to an investigation by Merseyside Police's Economic Crime Team, with assistance from Trading Standards and Consumer Direct. The five men have been sentenced today. The two women will be sentenced at a later date.
The investigation was prompted by complaints from all around the country from small businesses saying they had been tricked into taking out advertisements in a publication called 'Emergency Services News'.
The defendants from Weinstein Williams Associates Ltd were found to have been responsible for falsely claiming that they either worked directly for the emergency services, an emergency services press office, or working on behalf of the emergency services.
Detectives believe as many as 15,000 victims believed the sales pitch and paid money for adverts in publications that either did not materialise or never reached the audience that Weinstein Williams Associates Ltd had promised.
Some victims defaulted on mortgage payments in order to settle bills with the fraudsters after being threatened with legal actions. One man even sold his work van to settle a debt.
When detectives searched the company's rented office on Dale Street in Liverpool they found evidence that only 30,000 copies of Emergency Services news had ever been produced. To meet the promises that they had made to customers Weinstein William Associates Ltd would have had to have produced and distributed 1.2m copies.
Following today's sentencing hearing, in which George Williams was jailed for seven years for fraud by false representation and five years for fraudulent trading, Detective Constable Lee Egerton from Merseyside Police said:
"George Williams was in charge of a team of sales people who specialised in trawling through huge lists of businesses and cold-calling them in the hope they would advertise with them.
"Sales reps played on people's inherent trust in the emergency services by creating the impression they were either working for the police, fire or ambulance services, or on behalf of them.
"This was actually a pack of lies and couldn't have been further from the truth as the police were in fact investigating them for fraud.
"It was an indiscriminate, scattergun approach which saw victims from Scotland to the south coast contacted and enticed into spending their hard-earned money on a magazine which was nothing to do with the emergency services.
"The scam was so convincing that sadly thousands of otherwise astute, intelligent small business owners were taken in and lost out financially. George Williams and team meanwhile lived a life of comfort and luxury on the back of their crimes.
"After a five year investigation it is satisfying for myself and the victims in this case to see people receiving custodial sentences for what they had done to lots of innocent people."
Detective Inspector Helen Bennett who leads the force's Economic Crime Team added:
"Scammers like this prey on people's desire to better themselves and their business. They create a veneer of authenticity - in this case using the good name of the emergency services - to convince people they are genuine. A lot of the victims spent their marketing budget on taking an ad out in a magazine that they thought reached hundreds of thousands of readers when in fact it barely got sent to anyone.
"We have shown other would-be scammers and fraudsters out there of what Merseyside Police is prepared to do to protect the public from fraud and tackle the offenders and today's custodial sentences should serve as a warning.
"However people can protect themselves from convincing scams like this by researching the company on the Internet first, never agreeing to pay anything up front, never giving bank details to cold-callers over the phone and reporting any concerns or suspicions they have to Action Fraud and the police.
"If something seems too good to be true, it often is and you should leave well alone."
The police investigation was carried out in conjunction with National Trading Standards.
Lord Toby Harris, chair of National Trading Standards said:
“This scheme was operated with the sole intention of taking money off small businesses through deceit and dishonesty, which is why I am so pleased to see these criminals brought to justice.
“This sentence sends a strong signal to criminals and our teams are working tirelessly to protect honest businesses and clamp down on criminal fraudsters. These criminals targeted businesses across the country and – by building on coordinated intelligence across various regional authorities – our officers have secured an excellent result that demonstrates the value of our national Scambuster network.
“If you suspect you have been a victim of fraud, please Action Fraud.”
Sentences are as follows:
- George Williams - seven years and five years respectively (concurrent)
- Ronnie Lloyd - 12 months
- Martin Cullen - nine month sentence suspended for two year plus 300 hours community service
- Tony O'Neill - seven month sentence suspended for two years plus 300 hours community service
- George Randles - 150 hours community service
Notes to Editors
For more information about this case contact the regional Scambuster office on 01244 977290. For more general enquiries regarding National Trading Standards please call 020 7025 7570 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes to editors
About National Trading Standards
- National Trading Standards provides leadership influence, support and resources to help combat consumer and business detriment locally, regionally and nationally.
- The National Trading Standards Board is a group of senior and experienced local government heads of trading standards, representing all trading standards services across England and Wales. The Board has been set up by the Government as part of changes to the consumer protection landscape and an enhanced role for trading standards.
- National Trading Standards funds the Scambuster Teams that target rogue trading, doorstep crime and scams, providing support across England and Wales through eight regionally based teams:
1. Central England Trading Standards Authorities (CeNTSA)
2. North East Trading Standards Authorities (NETSA)
3. Trading Standards East Midlands (TSEM)
4. Trading Standards North West (TSNW)
5. Tri Region Scambusters (TRS), on behalf of Trading Standards South East Ltd (TSSEL), East of England Trading Standards Association (EETSA) and London Trading Standards Association (LoTSA)
6. Trading Standards Partnership South West (SWERCOTS)
7. Yorkshire and Humber Trading Standards Group (YAHTSG) and
8. Wales Heads of Trading Standards (WHoTS)
There are separate arrangements in place in Scotland.
For more information please visit www.nationaltradingstandards.uk.