A man who operated websites which conned consumers out of £1.6m has been handed a one year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay £200,000 within 28 days at Leeds Crown Court today.
The sentence comes after he pleaded guilty to breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 following a National Trading Standards investigation.
The defendant was known by the name Richard Howard (aged 32 of Colliers Wood, Wimbledon) when operating his websites which misled consumers, however after National Trading Standards opened their investigation he changed his name by to George Orwell. His one year prison sentence is suspended for two years and he must pay £200,000 within 28 days or face prison.
Mr Howard/Orwell, through his company UK Services and Support Limited, operated three websites that claimed to offer additional benefits when applying for a UK passport. In reality the services provided were of little or no value and it was judged consumers would not have paid for these services had they not been misled or deceived into doing so. UK consumers handed over approximately £1.6m for their passports and Mr Howard/Orwell’s additional services between December 2013 and August 2015.
Consumers were duped into paying fees of £117 or more to apply or renew their passport, with additional costs including a £10 appointment booking fee (a free service through HMPO), fees to receive directions to their local passport office or to receive a letter, text message or email, and even a £20 ‘queue jump fee’ (something HMPO does not allow). At the end of the transaction, consumers were then also asked to pay HMPO the actual cost of up to £85 to receive their passports.
Mr Howard/Orwell justified his firm’s fees by saying that his websites carried disclaimers warning consumers they were not affiliated to the official HMPO site. However, he did not provide consumers with their cancellation rights as required by consumer protection legislation.
When consumers tried to challenge Mr Howard/Orwell’s unfair and illegal fees he took aggressive action to fend them off – issuing over 800 cases of legal action in county court against his own unhappy customers. In many cases consumers who were not willing to defend themselves against Mr Howard/Orwell’s legal actions made payments to him, with him receiving a total of 600 payments. Evidence seized from his computer showed he had knowingly calculated that many consumers would pay him to avoid defending even a dubious legal claim.
Mr Howard/Orwell also used online visitor data to threaten people who did not complete their transactions, saying that bailiffs would turn up at their houses or that they would be sent to prison for non-payment. He did this by claiming that by using his website consumers had entered into a ‘binding contract’ with his company, an untrue and legally invalid accusation, which led to victims suffering from prolonged periods of depression, anxiety and stress.
His victims included a 16 year-old female who was in the middle of her school exam year. She reported receiving threatening phone calls and text messages during classes, leaving her unable to concentrate, frightened that bailiffs would turn up at her parents’ house. Another victim, a disabled woman, experienced worsened physical and mental wellbeing as a result of the threats and harassment.
Following the intervention of National Trading Standards Mr Howard/Orwell agreed to repay those consumers who were witnesses in the case, and to cease all legal action against his customers. The consumer forum LegalBeagles also supported a number of consumers in challenging Mr Howard/Orwell’s unfounded legal claims.
Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, said:
“This is a shocking case and Mr Howard/Orwell’s actions were appalling on several levels. Firstly, he misled consumers by conning then into paying more for worthless services. Then he callously abused the legal system to harass consumers who dared to challenge him and even harassed those who had not used his service.
“I am pleased that the work of National Trading Standards means that Mr Howard/Orwell is now facing the consequences of his actions. This sends a clear message that those who mislead consumers will face justice.
“Anyone who suspects they may have fallen victim to similar websites should report it to trading standards via the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline on 03454 04 05 06.”
Councillor Nigel Ayre, executive member with responsibility for Trading Standards at City of York Council, said:
“This case of bullying and dishonesty is appalling and shows a casual disregard for the law alongside a willingness to exploit consumers. Again, I applaud our expert investigators for unveiling and successfully prosecuting another ecrime which impersonates legitimate, at-cost services.
“If you ever need to search for government services, don’t use a search engine. Go to gov.uk and search there. Anyone who finds a copycat website can report it to the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.”
North Yorkshire County Councillor Andrew Lee, Executive Member for Trading Standards, said:
“Cases such as these show that we can catch and prosecute online fraudsters like Mr Howard or Mr Orwell, whatever they change their names to. It shows that councils like North Yorkshire and York work well together under the auspices of the National Trading Standards eCrime Team to catch online criminals, and won’t tolerate consumers being misled or harassed this way.”
In sentencing Mr Howard/Orwell, His Honour Judge Christopher Batty said he had handed down the sentence because “of the stress, aniexty, depression and fear you caused to victims.”