Three members of the same family were jailed when they appeared at Teesside Crown Court yesterday charged with defrauding dozens of elderly and vulnerable victims across the country.
The men, Fred Smith, 62, and his two son in laws, George Thomas Humberstone, 35, and Mitchell Seedhouse, 26, all of Clees Park Travellers Site, Walsall Road, Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, targeted the most vulnerable victims over many months and years. They undertook unnecessary, shoddy and grossly over-priced work to their roofs, the court heard
The frauds totalled more than £146,000 and included 27 victims in North Yorkshire, the East Riding, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Wolverhampton. The prosecution followed an investigation by Operation Gauntlet, the multi-agency safeguarding team hosted at North Yorkshire County Council Trading Standards Service.
The investigation began after an incident in the Whitby area in June 2016 when a vulnerable woman was visited by two of the offenders and defrauded of £1,450. She had also been targeted by the same gang in June 2014 when work was undertaken to her roof. In total she paid the men £5,600. An expert appointed by trading standards found the work completed in June 2016 were worth just £55 plus VAT.
Smith and Seedhouse were arrested at Clees Park in a joint operation between Operation Gauntlet and Staffordshire Police in September 2016. Following their arrest, Humberstone was interviewed in prison in May 2017 where he was serving three years and one month for similar offences following a prosecution by Birmingham Trading Standards.
Other victims were then identified by the investigation through tracing payments into the offender’s bank accounts. These included:
- An 85-year-old man living alone in Shropshire who was targeted by Smith and Humberstone on a number of occasions in 2014 and who paid them a total of £14,830. An expert who examined the work said it was worth just £2,855 plus VAT, if it had been completed properly. He described some of the work as “unorthodox and aesthetically poor”. Remedial work is now required to the victim’s roof.
- A couple in their 60s and 70s living in Nottinghamshire who were targeted by the gang in 2014 and paid them a total of £42,450 for roofing work which an expert valued at just £800 to £1,100 plus VAT. Remedial work of £10,600 to £12,600 is required to the roof.
- An elderly woman and her carer living in Staffordshire were targeted by Smith and Humberstone in 2014 and paid them a total of £14,600. An expert said the work was worth £4,775 plus VAT, but was unlikely to have been necessary in the first place.
- A 91-year-old man living alone in Staffordshire paid Smith £15,050 in 2014 and 2015. An expert said it would be worth £2,000 plus VAT, but included work that was not recommended such as painting the roof tiles.
- An 85-year-old woman with dementia living alone in Somerset was targeted by Smith and Seedhouse in 2016 and paid a total of £5,790 for work an expert valued at just £448.
- A 85-year-old man living alone in Staffordshire was targeted by Seedhouse in 2016 and paid £6,000. An expert valued the work at £2,990 had it been completed correctly, but remedial work was now required of over £1,300.
Sentencing the men, Judge Sean Morris said: “I cannot think of anything more low. Picking on the weak and elderly. I’ve seen the victim personal statements and heard one of the victims talk about the devastation you caused. They trusted you and liked you. No doubt you were laughing behind their backs. They felt stupid but they weren’t stupid, they were trusting, decent folk.”
“This was a sophisticated, nationwide, deliberate fraud. It was over a sustained period of time and involved a large number of victims. It is not just the money when crimes like this are committed that matters. Money is only one aspect of it. It’s the impact that you have. And the nature of the person impacted upon.
“This has had a serious detrimental effect on all of the victims and all, or the majority, are vulnerable because of their age and they were targeted as such.”
Smith was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, Seedhouse to five years and Humberstone to three and a half years. All three were also made the subject of Criminal Behaviour Orders, prohibiting them from conducting any form of property repairs at occupied residential properties and from cold calling for a period of 10 years.
A Proceeds of Crime Act case will now take place to confiscate the assets of Smith and Seedhouse to compensate victims from any money recovered.
Speaking after the case, County Councillor Andrew Lee, executive member for North Yorkshire Trading Standards said: “This case is a perfect example of collaborative working to deal with a team of offenders who considered the elderly and vulnerable to be rich pickings, who existed purely to fund their luxury lifestyles.
“Offenders who make the mistake of coming into North Yorkshire will be dealt with robustly using all available tools and this result is exactly what the Operation Gauntlet team is in place to achieve. We take the protection of the vulnerable in our communities extremely seriously. I must take this opportunity to warn residents not to deal with cold callers and to report any concerns to us immediately.”
Detective Inspector Giles Parsons, of Staffordshire Police, said: “We were keen to work with North Yorkshire Trading Standards and assist them in executing these warrants in south Staffordshire. This was a well-planned operation and we are glad it has resulted in these three men being sentenced for their crimes.
“We look forward to supporting our colleagues from Trading Standards and other agencies again and continuing to crack down on the unacceptable targeting of vulnerable people in Staffordshire and beyond.”
The 85 year old victim in Shropshire who was defrauded of £14,830 said in his victim statement:
“The entire encounter with Fred Smith is something I have tried to shut out as a phase in my life I want to forget. I was a serving Army officer for 33 years, many of which were spent on the front line, and following my retirement my wife and I had a few enjoyable years before she was taken ill. For the next 27 years I became her full time carer, as she was unable to do things for herself and became unable to speak.
“She sadly died some time ago leaving me living alone but managing very well with some outside help for cleaning, gardening and shopping, paid for by attendance allowance that I became eligible for. I have also recovered from two bouts of cancer. Having achieved and coped with so much in my life, I feel ashamed that Fred Smith was able to undermine all this and I have surrendered to him without a fight.”
The husband in the Nottinghamshire couple who paid £42,450 said: “I am very disappointed that these men have taken advantage of my good nature to deprive me of money set aside for repairs to our house. The state of the roof is now worse than when they started and damp is coming in where they trampled and cracked the tiles.”
His wife added: “While they were working there was a feeling of intrusion with repeated pressurising regarding further work required, which they knew we did not have time to investigate.
I have been left with a feeling of betrayal of trust and a temptation to let the place rot rather than waste time and money with the prospect of no real improvement.”
“I have a reluctance to answer the door, a feeling of ‘now what?’, and a feeling of dislike thinking that there is a need to be unpleasant when ‘no’ is not accepted.”
Other victims described their lack of self-esteem and confidence, anger, depression, feeling foolish, and a general mistrust in tradespeople as a result of the offending.
The investigation was supported by funding provided by the National Tasking Group of National Trading Standards and also from individual trading standards services who paid for expert examinations of properties in their areas.