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Six sentenced in copycat case

Six people have today (6 March 2018) been sentenced to a total of more than 35 years in prison after being convicted of defrauding UK consumers out of over £37 million in one of the largest UK online crime cases. They operated a number of ‘copycat websites’, impersonating official government services to sell passports, driving licences and other key documents for vastly inflated prices.

The convictions and sentences follow one of the biggest investigations undertaken by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team. The convictions and sentences were handed down following two trials – one in July 2017 and the other in March 2018. The convictions and sentences relating to the July 2017 trial can only be reported now due reporting restrictions which were in place.

The July 2017 trial resulted in the following sentences:

  • Peter Hall (age 47 of Homestead Road, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire) was sentenced to 8 years and 8 months in prison. Mr Hall also received a further 1 year and 4 months in relation to a previous suspended sentence following a conviction for fraud.
  • Claire Hall (age 41 of Homestead Road, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire) was sentenced to 4 years in prison.
  • Syed Bilal Zaidi (aged 35 formerly of Broad Street, Arlesford, Hampshire) was sentenced to 6 years in prison in his absence and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
  • Collette Ferrow (aged 50 of Longmead, Liss, Hampshire) was sentenced to 4 years in prison
  • Liam Hincks (aged 28 of St Albans Heights, Tanyfron, Wrexham, Clwyd) pleaded guilty before the trial began and was sentenced to 3 years.

The March 2018 trial (which ended today) resulted in the followed sentences:

  • Peter Hall (age 47 of Homestead Road, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire) was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He was also disqualified as company director for 10 years.
  • Kerry Mills (age 49 of Hillsborough Park, Camberley, Surrey) was sentenced to 5 years in prison. She was also disqualified as a company director for 8 years.
  • Liam Michael Murray Hincks (aged 28 of St Albans Heights, Tanyfron, Wrexham, Clwyd) pleaded guilty before the trial began and will be sentenced at a later date.

The July 2017 trial heard how the defendants set up copycat websites through the company Tadservices Limited between January 2011 and November 2014. These sites mimicked official websites run by eleven government agencies and departments and manipulated search engine results to appear more genuine. They 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 criminals also set up websites that mimicked the American, Turkish, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Sri Lankan official visa sites where travellers could apply and pay for electronic visas to visit those countries. In all cases the sites offered little or no additional value to consumers using them. It is believed that in addition to UK consumers Indian, Turkish and US citizens were also defrauded.

The illegal profits funded a glamorous lifestyle for the defendants, with extravagant spending on expensive cars and luxury holidays. At one stage Claire Hall was preparing to buy a house for a cash payment of £1,400,000 when the authorities intervened.

The Halls were arrested on 27 June 2014 as part of an investigation by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, who together with police raided properties across Hampshire. The eCrime Team seized items including computers and mobile phones.

The second trial (March 2018) heard how the five defendants established a series of copycat websites through the companies Online Forms Limited and AE Online Services Limited in 2014 and 2015. These copycat websites mimicked a range of the visa application websites of a range on countries including the United States, India, Turkey, Bahrain and Sri Lanka.

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

“These convictions represent an important milestone in the fight against online fraud. This was a huge fraud and a very large number of people lost money as a result of the malicious actions of these criminals. Our eCrime team – operating with finite resources – has worked tirelessly to bring these criminals to justice and I’m delighted that their efforts have led to these historic convictions.

“I would urge members of the public to report any copycat websites they spot to the Citizens Advice consumer service by calling 03454 04 05 06.”

Mike Andrews from the National Trading Standards eCrime Team said:

“This was a crime motivated by greed. This group defrauded people so they could enjoy a luxury lifestyle. They showed no regard for the unnecessary costs they imposed on their victims – I would say they treated them with contempt.

“I would urge people to always use the GOV.UK website when looking to apply for any kind of government service such as a passport, driving licence or EHIC card. Search engines may seem the easiest route but searching using the GOV.UK website is the safest way of ensuring you do not fall victim to a copycat website.”

Councillor Andrew Lee of North Yorkshire County Council, said:

“This is a landmark consumer case for Trading Standards. It is one of the first ever successful prosecutions of a copycat operator and is also the biggest online fraud case ever brought by Trading Standards. Consumers searching for government services online can go directly to GOV.UK and search there instead.”

Councillor Ann Reid of City of York Council, said:

“Our experts have doggedly pursued this group to ensure no more consumers are defrauded by them. They deliberately misled consumers about obtaining important, confidential and sensitive documents and offered them no added value or, in some cases, failed to deliver the work they’d been paid to do.”

The investigation into this case was led by the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, which is hosted by North Yorkshire County Council, in partnership with the National Trading Standards Yorkshire and Humber Regional Investigations Team, which is hosted by City of York Council.

In handing down his sentences in September 2017 His Honour Judge Sean Morris said:

“Mr Hall was a highly manipulative and controlling individual and it was a determined, sophisticated long running fraud. He was a charming man but did not charm the jury. We live in a computer age, and crime is developing to meet that age. People live by their computers and need to know that the services they purchase online are genuine services.”

In handing down his sentences in March 2018 His Honour Judge Sean Morris said:

“The internet is now the most frequently used marketplace. It is full of busy people in a rush who don’t have time. It’s a tool used by everyone for buying train tickets, holidays, cars, visas and it involves millions of mouse clicks a day. There is a lot of money to be made by dishonest people out of the honest people who don’t have time to check that a site is an official government service. Those who deceive in this way should expect to go to prison for a long time.

“The jury in the last trial found you {Peter Hall} guilty. You involved your wife in the running of these websites and continued despite being told to stop by trading standards, who told you your sites were illegal, but again and again you continue to commit these offences online.”

Claire Hall (age 41 of Homestead Road, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire) and Andrew Baker (age 46 of Gascoigne Lane, Ropley, Hampshire) both stood trial as part of the March 2018 trial but were found not guilty.

The Advertising Standards Authority previously found websites run by the defendants to be misleading. Commenting on the convictions and sentences handed down ASA Chief Executive Guy Parker said:

“We welcome the action taken by National Trading Standards against this bogus operator. This is a real result for consumer protection and sends an incredibly strong message that there are significant consequences for those who swindle and dupe people out of their money. We’re continuing to take action against websites that misleadingly imply they’re an official provider of government services. To avoid being misled, consumers looking to access these services should go to”

Sharon Coleman of the community forum Legal Beagles said:
“It is good to see the tide turning against online criminals through the sentences handed out by the judge in this case. Legal Beagles was glad to play its part in helping National Trading Standards during the investigation into this fraud, and will continue to work with enforcement agencies to protect consumers. We would also urge consumers to report copycat websites to Trading Standards via the Citizens Advice helpline number on 03454 04 05 06.”