North East fish fraudster jailed

A mobile fish seller who defrauded vulnerable households out of £100,000 has been sentenced today at Teesside Crown Court to 60 months in prison, reduced to 40 months for an early guilty plea.

Between 2017 and 2019 John Mills, aged 50, repeatedly used aggressive, unfair and dishonest selling practices to force customers to buy large quantities of unwanted fish that was often unfit for human consumption.

Based in Chester-le-Street before moving to Dairy House Road, Derby, Mills pleaded guilty to fraudulent trading at Teesside Crown Court on 1 September 2020 following witness statements from more than 80 victims. He targeted elderly and vulnerable households across the Midlands and the North of England. Many of his victims had serious health conditions and were deliberately targeted by Mills in the belief that they were less likely to question the sale or complain.

Victims described how Mills forced his way into their homes without permission and pressurised them into paying exorbitant prices for poor quality fish they didn’t want. On one occasion, Mills intimidated a 72-year-old widow into paying £270 for fish she hadn’t ordered. The experience left her feeling ‘isolated and vulnerable’. Victims felt threatened when they said they couldn’t afford to pay or challenged the price.

Mills’ fraud was built on five key tactics:

  1. Source fish cheaply and sell it exorbitantly high
  2. Target people in vulnerable situations, including people with dementia
  3. Dishonest and aggressive sales techniques, including intimidation and threatening behaviour
  4. Disregard for hygiene standards and other legal requirements
  5. Change trading name after complaints were made to avoid detection

The investigation was led by the National Trading Standards North East Regional Investigations Team. Analysis of the defendant’s various bank accounts and the card terminal used to process payments evidences approximately £107,000 worth of fish sales during the three-year period, although it is likely that the actual figure was higher.

The mobile fish selling industry has generated significant numbers of complaints over many years, particularly in North East England, with criminal traders using aggressive and unfair techniques to generate sales.

Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, said:

“Duping and threatening vulnerable and elderly customers in their own home in order to make a sale is a despicable business practice. Many of the defendant’s victims have been left feeling distressed and vulnerable by this experience as well as facing significant financial loss. The defendant had a blatant disregard for the quality of the fish he was supplying and the safety and welfare of his customers. It is only right that he now faces the consequences of his fraudulent actions.

“If you or someone you know, has fallen victim to a fraud like this you should report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service helpline by calling 0808 223 1133.”

Michael Yeadon, Durham County Council’s environment and health protection manager, said:

“Our community protection service recognises the importance of inspecting food businesses and the sampling of food in order to protect members of the public from the actions of unscrupulous traders such as Mr Mills.

“We welcome the sentence passed down to him and will continue to work with partners nationally and regionally to ensure that traders adhere to national standards on labelling and hygiene of food.”

Mr Mills has also been issued with a Criminal Behaviour Order that prohibits him indefinitely from selling products and making unsolicited calls at people’s homes.

Notes to Editors

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 and organised criminality.