A family who made over £2 million using deliberately misleading websites to trick people into paying for European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs), which were freely available from the official NHS website, have been sentenced today at Leeds Crown Court following an investigation by National Trading Standards.
The elaborate scam saw two brothers use a computer programme to push their misleading websites to the top of internet search results to deceive consumers into needlessly paying for their EHIC. The websites were, in fact, a front for a clever ‘cut and paste’ job, with customers’ details simply being copied over into the NHS website form. This investigation was led by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, which is hosted by North Yorkshire Council and City of York Council.
Siblings Damien Sartip Zadeh (aged 32, of Angram Drive, Sunderland) and Dale Sartip Zadeh (aged 35, of Polperro Close, Ryhope, Sunderland), were directors of the companies behind the misleading websites, www.europeanhealthcard.org.uk and www.ehic-cards.org.uk. They were jailed for nine and a half years and eight years respectively after being found guilty of fraudulent trading and laundering the proceeds, between February 2013 and October 2019.
Damien was also convicted of engaging in aggressive commercial practices after threatening consumers who complained to prevent them pursuing refunds. Damien and Dale have both been disqualified from being directors for 10 years.
Their parents, Diane Sartip Zadeh (aged 60) and Mahmud Sartip Zadeh (aged 62) both of Angram Drive, Sunderland, were found guilty of money laundering and were sentenced to two years, suspended for two years. Both are also required to attend 10 activity rehabilitation days. Mahmud Sartip Zadeh was also ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work and disqualified from being a director for five years.
Test purchasing of an EHIC by National Trading Standards through www.ehic-cards.org.uk uncovered a range of misleading features on the site that undermined the NHS service and added no value for consumers.
For example, the site claimed it provided a ‘check and send’ service for consumers, but the test purchase showed the application was approved and sent within minutes of the application being made, proving that no checks could have been done. And the application was made using covert identities, so there was no way of doing any checks at all. The site also claimed it could provide fast-track, and 24/7 services – these are not possible with the EHIC.
The investigation found that the colour and background of the site was similar to the NHS and Government Digital Service websites, which could mislead consumers into thinking they were using official channels. The defendants also relied on a disclaimer that was buried in the footer text, was the last paragraph on the page and was not prominent enough to be recognisable as a disclaimer.
HHJ Penny Belcher referred to Damien being shown suggested prominent disclaimers by prosecution Counsel during trial when Damien said “a consumer would see them and skedaddle off to the NHS site.” The judge remarked “the truth came out.”
Other false claims included that the NHS doesn’t provide telephone or multilingual support, or provide travel advice, which it does.
Upon realising they had been duped into paying for a free service, many victims tried to complain but were met with hostility and aggression. Requests from victims to cancel or receive a refund – which they were legally entitled to – were refused and often followed-up with the threat of legal action if they attempted to claim a chargeback from their bank or credit card company.
HHJ Penny Belcher, said Damien used “thoroughly aggressive and nasty threats” when consumers realised they’d been scammed and tried to get refunds.
The National Trading Standards case followed repeated warnings to the family to stop the offending. Despite attempts by both the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Sunderland Trading Standards to secure appropriate amendments to the websites to prevent them from misleading consumers, the problems continued. The family were also arrested in 2016 in relation to an investigation by Camden Trading Standards. Although that investigation did not result in a prosecution, the family were warned about the consequences of any future similar behaviour. The matter was subsequently referred by the ASA to National Trading Standards.
HHJ Penny Belcher, referring to Damien’s insistence that the family had done nothing wrong and his claim that he had not believed parts of a warning letter sent by Camden Trading Standards, said: “if that is true, it shows breathtaking arrogance on your part.”
The brothers received large sums of money from the fraud, including monies which were initially transferred to their parents’ accounts and subsequently diverted back to them. The family now face asset confiscation proceedings, to remove the assets they obtained from the proceeds of the offending.
Lord Michael Bichard, Chair, National Trading Standards, said:
“This was a case of serious and organised fraud, where large sums were taken from unsuspecting, ordinary, busy people and the sites were a scam from start to finish.
“National Trading Standards and local Trading Standards teams continue to remove misleading websites and the successful outcome of this case sends a clear message to criminals that deceiving consumers will not be tolerated.
“We urge people to use GOV.UK to find government services, the easiest and most secure place to find government services and information online, and report suspected misleading websites to the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0808 223 1133.”
Ruth Andrews, Regional Investigations and eCrime Manager at City of York Council, added:
“Despite multiple warning flags being raised with these defendants - including a previous arrest and warrants at their addresses and receiving written warnings about their future behaviour - they brazenly persisted with their fraud. They were determined to continue, believing they would never face justice. This case has shown we have equal measures of tenacity to protect consumers from such frauds and pursue cases to a conclusion.”
ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker said:
“We welcome the sentencing handed down to these offenders following the investigation by the National Trading Standards eCrime team. It sends a clear signal to bogus operators behind misleading websites that fraudulent practices will be met with the force of law.
“The scale of and the aggressive practices behind this scam are a reminder to everyone about the need to be vigilant when making online purchases. These scams can affect anyone, from the vulnerable to the tech savvy.
"We will continue to work closely with national and local trading standards to help protect people from this insidious criminal activity.”
Councillor Greg White, Executive Member for Regulatory Services at North Yorkshire Council, said:
"I commend the National Trading Standards eCrime team for bringing this long and difficult case against this family of scammers to its successful end. They've tried, but failed, to profit from scamming consumers in this dishonest and underhanded way. It’s especially important, that scams like this are regularly, detected, investigated, prosecuted, and dismantled, so that other criminals see we won’t tolerate them in our communities. I would also encourage anyone who has been a victim of an online scam like this to come forward and report it, as that report could stop it happening someone else.”
Notes to Editors
For more information, please contact the National Trading Standards press office by firstname.lastname@example.org calling 020 7101 5013
Notes to Editors
Trading names of Mr Damien Sartip Zadeh and Mr Dale Sartip Zadeh’s company included ‘European EHIC Services Limited’ and ‘-Limit Limited’
About National Trading Standards
National Trading Standards delivers national and regional consumer protection enforcement. Its Board is made up of senior and experienced heads of local government trading standards from around England and Wales with an independent Chair. Its purpose is to protect consumers and safeguard legitimate businesses by tackling serious national and regional consumer protection issues.