A group of fraudsters who conned UK consumers out of £37m by selling passports and driving licences through copycat websites have been sentenced to more than 35 years in jail.
The six people, led by Peter Hall and including his wife Claire, operated websites that impersonated official government services.
They then sold key documents to people for inflated prices.
The illegal profits were used to fund luxury holidays and cars.
Mike Andrews, lead co-ordinator of the eCrime team at National Trading Standards, which investigated the fraud, 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.”
National Trading Standards said that the defendants set up copycat websites between January 2011 and November 2014 that mimicked government services such as applying for or renewing passports, visas, birth or death certificates, driving licences and tests, car tax discs and the London Congestion Charge.
The group also set up sites that copied the American, Turkish, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Sri Lankan official visa sites where people could apply and pay for electronic visas to visit those countries.
National Trading Standards said that in all cases the sites offered little or no additional value to consumers using them, adding that it is believed Indian, Turkish and US citizens have also been defrauded.
It said that the “illegal profits funded a glamorous lifestyle for the defendants”. At one point, Claire Hall was preparing to buy a house for £1.4m when the authorities intervened.
Mr and Mrs Hall were arrested on 27 June 2014.
The National Trading Standards eCrime team and the police raided properties across Hampshire.
Mr Hall, aged 47, was sentenced to a total of 15 years following two trials which took place in July 2017 and March this year.
In the first trial, 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.”
- Peter Hall, 47, sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison. Disqualified as a company director for 10 years
- Claire Hall, 41, sentenced to four years in prison
- Syed Bilal Zaidi sentenced to six years in prison in his absence. Whereabouts unknown
- Collette Ferrow, 50, sentenced to four years in prison
- Liam Hincks pleaded guilty at July 2017 trial, sentenced to three years. He has pleaded guilty at the March 2018 trial and will be sentenced at a later date
- Kerry Mills, 49, sentenced to five years. Disqualified as a company director for eight years
Mr Andrews said: “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.”
Lord Toby Harris, chairman of National Trading Standards, said: “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.”