Four men face £5million tax website scam allegations

From left, Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes and Stephen Oliver.
From left, Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes and Stephen Oliver.

Four men have gone on trial accused of making millions from a scam tax return website.

The four are alleged to have misled users of their tax return gateway site into believing they were dealing directly with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The case is being heard at Teesside Crown Court.

The case is being heard at Teesside Crown Court.

Users were charged up to £1,000, with many believing some or all of their money would be credited against their tax bill, Teesside Crown Court heard.

The four, from East Durham and South Tyneside, are alleged to have run the operation from offices in Sunderland.

Prosecutor Jonathan Sandiford told the jury the site turned over £5.47m in five months.

"After deductions of fees and refunds the defendants received net payments of £4.672m from their card merchant service provider," said Mr Sandiford.

"The central issue in this case is whether, as the prosecution say, this website was a scam, or whether, as the defendants will say, it was a genuine check and submit service to those who wanted it."

The jury has each been given specially programmed iPads to help them read the hundreds of documents and internet screen grabs in the case.

Referring the jury to a copy of the website's home page, Mr Sandiford said: "You will see the colours are green and grey, similar to the official HMRC site.

"The term 'submit your tax return online now' is used, which we say would lead a user to think they were dealing directly with HMRC

"We say the use of the word 'gateway' was calculated to mislead, and one of the defendants remarked in an email it was 'rather official sounding'.

"There is evidence another website was being set up called fileonline.org.uk.

"We say the use of the domain '.org.uk' was designed to give the false impression the website was official.

"When one of the defendants was interviewed, he said they wanted the website to look 'official'.

"He explained that when designing a website to look official, they would use greens and blues, but avoid reds, black and yellow.

"We say another feature of the website was its simple design, giving the impression of an official site rather than a commercial one."

The court heard the tax return gateway site carried a disclaimer stating it was not official.

"We say the defendants had to do that to comply with compliance regulations imposed by internet search engines," said Mr Sandiford.

"The disclaimers were not prominent, being either in a small font or a lighter one, making them harder to read.

"Disclaimers on the home page were also bypassed by advertising links which directed users straight to a submissions page.

"Those that did complain were fobbed off by being referred to the disclaimer on the home page."

Jamie Wyatt, 27, of Peartree Rise, Seaton, Seaham and Michael Hughes, 26, formerly of Hutton Henry but now of Peartree Rise, Seaton, Seaham, Stephen Oliver, 47, of The Folly, West Boldon, and Richard Hough, 43, of Thorpe Waterville, Kettering, Northants, each deny conspiracy to defraud between June, 2013, and June, 2014.

The trial is expected to take 10 weeks.

Proceeding.