£6 million confiscated from ‘copycat’ website criminals

  • Criminals operated multiple ‘copycat’ websites
    mimicking official government services
  • The ‘complex fraudsters’ face a further 26
    years behind bars if they fail to pay, on top of lengthy prison sentences

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 2018). 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

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

  • 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.”

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.”