A FRADUSTER who operated websites that conned consumers as young as 16 out of £1.6m in a passport service scam has been condemned for his “appalling” dishonesty by Yorkshire-based investigators who brought him to justice.
Richard Howard, 32, of Colliers Wood, Wimbledon, London was yesterday handed a one-year suspended prison sentence at a hearing at Leeds Crown Court.
He was also ordered to pay £200,000 within 28 days after pleading guilty to breaches of trading regulations followinga National Trading Standards investigation supported by councils in North Yorkshire.
Howard, also known as George Orwell, operated three websites claiming to offer additional benefits when applying for a UK passport, through his company UK Services and Support Limited.
But the investigation found the services provided were of little or no value and it was judged consumers would not have paid had they not been misled or deceived. People handed over about £1.6m for their passports and Howard’s additional services through his company, between December 2013 and August 2015.
The investigating officers from Trading Standards are based with York Council and North Yorkshire County Council.
Coun Nigel Ayre, executive member with responsibility for Trading Standards at 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 crime which impersonates legitimate, at-cost services.”
Customers were duped, the investigation uncovered, into paying fees of £117 or more to apply for or renew their passport. Additional costs included a £10 appointment booking fee, a free service through Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO), and even a £20 “queue jump fee”, which HMPO does not allow.
At the end of the transaction, people were then also asked to pay HMPO the actual cost of up to £85 in order to receive their passports. The investigation also found that Howard issued more than 800 cases of legal action in county courts, against his own unhappy customers who challenged the fees.
Trading standards said he used online visitor data to threaten those, who did not complete their transactions, with bailiffs. Victims included a 16-year-old girl who, while studying for her exams, reported receiving threatening calls and texts during classes. Another victim was a disabled woman whose health deteriorated following threats.