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Business grant scammer sentenced for online fraud

A criminal who ran an elaborate business grants scam online has been jailed for 18 months, suspended for two years.

 Ashton Kevin Saunders, aged 27, from Chesham, Buckinghamshire, deceived small businesses into paying hundreds and in some cases thousands of pounds for online advertising that was never carried out or of no commercial value. Saunders was also given 300 hours of unpaid work, ordered to pay £13,255 of compensation to victims, and has to pay costs of £8,776.

Saunders had already pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud contrary to section 1 of the Fraud Act 2006, and a single count of common law conspiracy to defraud, at an earlier hearing at York Crown Court in June 2015.

His conviction concludes a long, detailed, online fraud investigation brought by the National Trading Standards Standard eCrime Team (NTSeCT), based North Yorkshire and York. NTSeCT worked closely with Action Fraud, who provided valuable intelligence support.

In sentencing Saunders, Judge Jameson said: “This is an internet version of advanced fee fraud of which you had a leading role. Remorse was not shown initially, but your offer to compensate victims, now I take as regret. I am going to give you the maximum amount of unpaid work I can. If I had not been able to do that, my sentence would have been one of immediate custody.”

Between July 2012 and November 2013, Saunders set up a number of businesses through which he operated his scam. He used some of them to convince small business owners from all over the UK that they were eligible for a 70% grant for website work and online advertising to promote their own businesses.

He told them that to access ‘70% of the value’ of the grant all they had to do was pay 30% of it upfront to a company called Blue Tech Media, which would carry out work to the full value of the grant.

After taking the up-front payment, Blue Tech Media, ultimately controlled by Saunders, either produced no work at all or produced work of such poor quality that it was of no commercial value.

Many of the small business owners had paid around £300-400 each and when they tried to get their money back they were unable to get hold of the defendant. Investigators from the NTSeCT tracked the money to the accounts of some of the businesses Saunders controlled and to his own personal accounts.

Lord Toby Harris, chair of National Trading Standards said:

“The actions of this criminal operation have blighted a large number of small business owners struggling to compete in the current economic climate and I am pleased that this investigation has seen justice served. National Trading Standards is committed to safeguarding business and this sentence sends a strong signal to perpetrators intent on deceiving consumers and businesses that their underhand tactics will not be tolerated.

“I urge any small businesses that are experiencing similar examples of fraud to contact Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040.”