On Wednesday 20 June 2018 at Reading Crown Court, Michael Freeman, 46, of Huntercombe Lane North, Taplow, Maidenhead, was sentenced to 9 months in custody suspended for a period of 2 years, pleading guilty to engaging in an unfair commercial practice in relation to a website drivinglicenses.org.uk that consumers thought was the DVLA. In addition the Court set a timetable for confiscation under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The sentencing followed an investigation by the Public Protection Partnership (PPP) Trading Standards Service working with the PPP Case Management Unit and the National Trading Standards Tri-Region Investigation Team.
The investigation was commenced when the Trading Standards Service received nearly 500 complaints from members of the public who felt they had been misled by the fake website drivinglicenses.org.uk. Consumers applied for new driving licences, to renew licences or to change something on their licence such as a change of name or address, and often paid £95 for each service. The DVLA can change an address on a licence for free. Consumers from a range of backgrounds, including people who worked in marketing, accounting, the civil service and even the motor trade, believed that this was an official site for the DVLA. Upon discovering it was not, or they did not have to pay such a high fee, customers would try and stop the application and request a refund only to find they had been induced into waiving their right to cancel.
In sentencing Mr Freeman, Her Honour Judge S Campbell called the operation “sophisticated” and said Mr Freeman had “rode roughshod over customers’ rights”. Mr Freeman had paid to have his website appear high up on any Google search results for renewal of driving licences, had used similar colours to the DVLA and made it difficult for customers to cancel an application and get a refund, even where this was requested within minutes of placing the order.
Steve Loudoun, Chairman of the Public Protection Partnership Management Board, said:
“This was a course of conduct over a 2 year period that was one of the worst examples of unfair trading we have encountered. It was clear that a number of people were misled by the website and spent money they didn’t need to and in some cases on services they could have got for free.”
He continued: “I must place on record my thanks to the National Trading Standards (NTS) South East, London and the East of England Regional Investigations Team for their assistance and support. This again is an example of the benefits of the Public Protection Partnership and its ability to build wider links and working relationships.”
Carl Robinson, Chairman of the NTS Tri Regional Investigation Team, said:
“Again, this highlights the value and success of partnership working between local authority Trading Standards services and regional assets such as the Regional Investigation Teams. Officers from our Regional Investigation Team were able to provide valuable additional investigational and evidence gathering assistance in order to allow the full facts of this complicated case to be presented and considered in court.”
The Public Protection Partnership is a shared service of Bracknell Forest Council, West Berkshire Council and Wokingham Borough Council and delivers trading standards, environmental health and licensing functions.