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Final defendants sentenced in landmark copycat website case

Two more people have been sentenced after pleading guilty to their roles in one of the biggest online conspiracy cases in UK legal history. Liam Hincks received 11 months in prison – which took into account his cooperation with the prosecution – and Caroline Gowans received a two year suspended prison sentence. Their sentencings bring to a conclusion Operation Dougal, National Trading Standards’ landmark investigation into the operation of copycat websites which has now secured convictions against seven defendants and prison sentences totalling 38 years and seven months.

Liam Michael Murray Hincks (aged 29, of Tanyfron, Wrexham, Clwyd) received 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to Conspiracy to Defraud, and Doing Acts Tending and Intended to Perverting the Course of Justice. This sentence is in addition to the 3 year prison sentenced he received after pleaded guilty to previous offences in a July 2017 trial.

Caroline Gowans (aged 53, of Petersfield, Hampshire) was handed a 2 year suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to Unauthorised Misuse of a Trademark belonging to the DVLA and Money Laundering.

Gowans laundered £1 million of the proceeds of a £37 million conspiracy to defraud committed between October 2011 and April 2013 by copycat website criminal Peter Hall. Hall was jailed following a July 2017 trial for the conspiracy with three other defendants -Claire Hall, Collette Ferrow and Bilal Zaidi.

Between 2011 and 2013, Gowans designed, hosted and maintained a number of websites for Peter Hall. Ms Gowans opened bank accounts in her own name which were then used to operate the websites, pay for advertising, and receive payments from online merchants, who are authorised to take credit and debit card payments on behalf of online businesses.

Hall instructed Gowans to design websites to convince consumers they were using the official DVLA website. She closely matched the colour scheme and logo of the fake site to that of the genuine DVLA site. Consumers searching for government services clicked on search engine adverts that led them to fake sites and ended up paying premium fees for driving licences, and car tax renewals, as well as driving licence and driving test applications.

Liam Hincks pleaded guilty shortly after he was arrested and charged in June 2014, despite his co-conspirators pleading not guilty at the time.

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

“Operation Dougal has been a landmark operation which has demonstrated very clearly that National Trading Standards will not hesitate to take action against those defrauding consumers using copycat websites.

“While this case has dealt a firm blow to those operating copycat websites 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.”

In handing down sentences His Honour Judge Sean Morris said:

“These were highly complex and determined frauds which netted millions. It was the hard work and diligence of National Trading Standards and the police that brought determined fraudsters to book, one of whom (Peter Hall) is now serving 15 years....I warmly commend the officers for their hard work, dedication and professionalism.”

Councillor Nigel Ayre of City of York Council said:

“The National Trading Standards eCrime Team based at City of York Council has helped secure convictions against seven defendants and prison sentences totalling over 38 years, which sends a clear message to other fraudsters that this kind of crime does not pay.”

Councillor Andrew Lee of North Yorkshire County Council said:

“North Yorkshire County Council and City of York Council decided several years ago to support the National Trading Standards eCrime Team, and convictions against copycat website operators such as this one vindicate those decisions. I am immensely proud of the team’s role in this prosecution, one of the largest online frauds of its kind.”

More information about Operation Dougal and the previous convictions and sentences secured can be found here

Notes to Editors

For more information about this case or for general enquiries about National Trading Standards please call 020 7025 7570 or e-mail nationaltradingstandards@grayling.com.

Notes to editors

About National Trading Standards

•National Trading Standards provides leadership influence, support and resources to help combat consumer and business detriment locally, regionally and nationally

•The National Trading Standards Board is a group of senior and experienced local government heads of trading standards, representing all trading standards services across England and Wales. The Board has been set up by the Government as part of changes to the consumer protection landscape and an enhanced role for trading standards.

•National Trading Standards teams are based within local authority trading standards services

•For more information please visit www.nationaltradingstandards.uk