A web designer asked to redesign an alleged scam tax returns site said he didn’t want to reveal the “smoke and mirrors” too early in the payment process.
The taxreturngateway site took £5.47million in five months in fees from users who were charged up to £1,000 each.
Many users thought their money was going directly to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Teesside Crown Court heard.
Prosecutors claim the website was deliberately designed to mislead users into believing they were dealing directly with HMRC.
In another email, web designer Mike Kenny said that “people might be inclined to catch on” if their tax estimates provided by site were in round numbers.
“You might like to consider if that is the language of a legitimate business,” prosecutor Jonathan Sandiford told the jury. Jamie Wyatt, Michael Hughes, Stephen Oliver and Richard Hough are all accused of fraud in relation to their taxreturngateway website, which was run from offices in Sunderland.
Mr Kenny is named as a co-conspirator, but is not on trial.
Closing his remarks to the jury, Mr Sandiford said:
“The intention was to deceive users so they assumed the majority of their payment was used for what can only have been their tax bill to HMRC.”
The jury was told the website came “under pressure” after users complained to the Press, Trading Standards and HMRC.
Amanda Bowring, a lawyer employed by HMRC, said: “We were getting complaints, there was clearly confusion in the minds of the public.”
Graham Trembath QC, defending Oliver, said: “There was a disclaimer on the taxreturngateway site, which also said they were a registered agent of HMRC.
“Saying they are a registered agent for HMRC clearly says they are not HMRC.”
Ms Bowing replied: “As a general policy, HMRC ask agents not to use their registration status in publicity material.”
Mr Trembath said HMRC had previously suggested changes to the site, which the defendants had made promptly.
He likened the site’s service to the ‘check and send’ service offered by the Post Office to people applying for a passport.
Ms Bowring agreed the changes had been made.
Jamie Wyatt, 27, and Michael Hughes, 26, both of Peartree Rise, Seaton, Seaham, Stephen Oliver, 47, of The Folly, West Boldon, and Richard Hough, 43, of Thorpe Waterville, Kettering, Northants, deny conspiracy to defraud between June, 2013, and June, 2014.
Wyatt, Hughes, and Oliver deny a second charge of conspiring to defraud by denying consumers the right to cancel under distance selling regulations.