Three ‘copycat’ website criminals were ordered to pay back more than £6 million* between them at a proceeds of crime hearing at Teesside Crown Court yesterday (2 April 2019). They were told that failure to pay within three months will lead to a further 26 years behind bars for the trio, which would be in addition to the prison sentences totalling more than 38 years for this case.**
The confiscation orders follow trials held in July 2017 and March 2018 which led to the initial convictions and prison sentences. These trials were two of the biggest conspiracy to defraud trials ever brought by trading standards and heard how, between January 2011 and November 2014, the criminals set up and operated copycat websites that knowingly misled hundreds of thousands of consumers into paying more than they needed for a number of government services including new or replacement passports, visas, birth and death certificates, driving licences, driving tests, car tax discs and the London Congestion Charge.
The lookalike sites were deliberately designed to mimic official websites run by eleven government agencies and departments. They manipulated search engine results, making users think they were using official government websites when in fact they were using ‘copycat’ sites that charged additional fees, leaving consumers out of pocket and at risk of identity theft.
The hearing marks the end of one of the biggest investigations undertaken by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team and Regional Asset Recovery Team (north east). The Judge commended the investigative team and financial investigator. His Honour Judge Sean Morris presiding said:
“This case has brought to book very complex fraudsters who scammed the public out of millions of pounds in a sophisticated fashion and enabled me to recover millions of pounds on behalf of the public.”
At the first trial in July 2017 HHJ Sean Morris sentenced:
- Peter Hall, aged 48, originally from Medstead, Alton in Hampshire, to 8 years and 8 months in prison. Mr Hall also received 1 year and 4 months of a previous suspended sentence for an unrelated fraud, to be served consecutively.
- Claire Hall, aged 42, also from Medstead, Alton in Hampshire, to 4 years in prison.
- Syed Bilal Zaidi, a web designer, aged 36, current whereabouts unknown but originally from Arlesford, Hampshire, to 6 years in his absence.
- Collette Ferrow, the office manager, aged 51 of Longmead, Liss in Hampshire, to 4 years in prison.
- Liam Hincks, a web designer, aged 29 of Tanyfron, Wrexham, Clwyd, was sentenced to 3 years. Hincks pleaded guilty before the trial began.
Then in March 2018, HHJ Morris gave:
- Peter Hall a further 5 years in prison and disqualified him from being a company director for 10 years.
- Kerry Mills, aged 50 of Camberley, Surrey, 5 years in prison and disqualified her from being a company director for 8 years.
- Caroline Gowans, a web designer, aged 54 of London Road, Petersfield received a 2-year prison sentence (suspended for 18 months) for a trade marks offence and money laundering following a guilty plea before trial.
The Halls lived the high life. They spent the money they took from consumers on luxury cars, expensive holidays and paid cash for a £1.4 million home in 2014.
The July 2017 trial heard how the Halls, Zaidi, Ferrow and Hincks ran their fraud through Tad Services Limited. The March 2018 trial heard how Peter Hall continued to offend along with Mills through the companies Online Forms Limited and AE Online Services Limited throughout 2014 and 2015, despite being on bail for the 2014 offence.
Peter Hall and Claire Hall were found to have a joint criminal benefit of more than £35 million and yesterday they were ordered to pay back a total of £5 million within three months or face a further 10 years each behind bars. Kerry Mills was found to have a criminal benefit of £1.5 million and ordered to pay back nearly £900,000 within three months or face a further six years imprisonment in default.
At confiscation hearings in 2018 Zaidi, Ferrow, Hincks, and Gowans were also made the subject of confiscations orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act totalling £206,256 and ordered to pay compensation of £8,779 to witnesses who gave evidence at their trials.
Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, said:
"We are clamping down on online fraud and illegal ‘copycat’ websites and as a result, both Peter Hall and Claire Hall are serving long prison sentences for their crimes. Combined with the additional confiscation orders announced today, the sentences send a strong message that crime does not pay and I’m delighted that victims will be able to see some of the money they lost returned to them.
“Thanks to the hard work of the National Trading Standards eCrime Team and our partners in the Regional Assets Recovery Team (north east), the criminals must pay back all the profits of their illegal enterprise. Anyone who spots a copycat website can report it to the trading standards via the Citizens Advice consumer service by calling 03454 04 05 06.”
Mike Andrews from the National Trading Standards eCrime Team said:
"Right from the outset the defendants made it difficult to bring this case to court, let alone recover any assets. But we never gave up and have recovered a substantial amount of money and assets.
But, whilst we can finally draw a line under this case, none of us should be complacent about online fraud or copycat websites. So, if you need to search for government services online, go to GOV.UK and search there instead."
Mrs. Ramona Senior, head of the Regional Asset Recovery Team (north east) said:
“I am delighted that close partnership working between National Trading Standards and the Regional Asset Recovery Team has led to the making of substantial confiscation orders. Asset recovery legislation will always be used against criminals seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of others.”
Councillor Andrew Lee of North Yorkshire County Council said:
“These confiscation orders, coupled with the prison sentences all the defendants received, should deter other online criminals. But it also shows that the work of the National Trading Standards eCrime Team doesn’t just stop when fraudsters go to prison. The team worked tirelessly with the Regional Asset Recovery Team to make sure crime does not pay.”
Notes to Editors
*The total confiscation orders amounted to £6,168,343.87
** Default sentences are served consecutive to the predicate offence and serving them does not extinguish the confiscation order which remains until paid in full.
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 teams are based within local authority trading standards services
- For more information please visit www.nationaltradingstandards.uk
About the National Trading Standards eCrime Team
- Funded by National Trading Standards, the National Trading Standards eCrime Team – a partnership between City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council – recognises that a secure and safe online environment that protects consumers and allows businesses to flourish is vital to the long-term success of the UK economy.
- The eCrime Team provides a national resource to support all local authority areas in England and Wales, tackling the increasing threat to businesses and consumers in relation to internet scams and rip-offs. There are separate arrangements in place in Scotland.