Two directors and five employees of Peterborough-based mobility company, Life Comfort Products Ltd, have been sentenced for their role in a scam that targeted homeowners on their doorsteps and reportedly made an estimated £17m in the last two years.
Using misleading and aggressive sales tactics, staff at Life Comfort Products Ltd targeted ‘No Cold Calling Zones’ and neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of people living with a disability by pressurising them for hours into buying furniture they did not want or need.
The sentences follow an 18 month investigation into the company by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Trading Standards, with support from the National Trading Standards Tri Region Investigation Team, who described the scam as “particularly nasty”.
The defendants pleaded guilty to professional diligence charges contrary to consumer protection legislation at an earlier hearing at Peterborough Crown Court. Life Comfort Products Ltd as a legal entity was also found guilty.
Directors of Life Comfort Products Ltd, Geoffrey Bernard Turner and Jacqueline Turner, both of Hall Lane, Werrington, Peterborough, were sentenced to 12 months and nine months respectively. They were banned from being directors for 10 and seven years, respectively.
All seven defendants were given five year criminal behaviour orders, a first for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Trading Standards.
The investigation followed hundreds of complaints to Citizens Advice concerning aggressive and misleading practices by their sales and door canvassing teams all over England.
Officers from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Trading Standards executed a warrant at the Life Comfort Products offices, where they seized a range of scripts and training materials that encouraged hostile sales tactics.
Evidence gathered confirmed that Life Comfort Products Ltd employed very aggressive and misleading practices to secure sales of expensive rise and recline chairs and electric adjustable beds.
The company actively targeted older consumers and people living in vulnerable situations. This included tasking canvassers to seek out addresses with disabled access ramps, grab rails and other indicators of a potentially vulnerable homeowner.
Evidence was also gathered showing a number of demonstrations had been given to customers with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, with family members stating that their parent’s vulnerabilities would have been plainly visible to anyone.
Consumers were also told that the furniture – which included rise and recline chairs – were manufactured by the company at their Peterborough factory. In reality, the furniture was purchased from another manufacturer and sold by Life Comfort Products with a considerable mark-up.
As part of the investigation, three independent furniture reports showed that the chairs were not fit for purpose, had not been made to the consumer’s individual’s measurements and had a number of manufacturing defects. In two cases there was evidence suggesting that a chair and an electric adjustable bed actually made the consumer’s health complaints worse.
Lord Toby Harris, chair of National Trading Standards, said: “These criminals deliberately targeted neighbourhoods in ‘No Cold Calling Zones’ so they could prey on homeowners in more vulnerable situations, such as people with a disability or older people. They were aggressive on the doorstep and pressurised victims to buy products they did not want or need.”
Peter Gell, head of regulatory services for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Trading Standards, said: “These sentences reflect the seriousness of the offence and that this company was using very aggressive sales techniques against victims, many of whom were targeted because they were vulnerable.
“Not only this, but the rise and recline chair products that the company was selling were found in some cases as not fit for purpose with numerous manufacturing defects. In two cases there was evidence suggesting that a chair and an electric adjustable bed actually made the consumer’s health complaints worse.
“The excellent investigational work carried out by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Trading Standards supported by National Trading Standards has resulted in the sentencings and this should go out as a strong warning to other companies who think they can get away with targeting vulnerable and elderly people for their substantial financial gain.”
Carl Robinson, chair of the NTS (Tri) Regional Investigation Team, said: “This was a particularly nasty case where elderly and often vulnerable people were targeted in their own homes. Officers from our Regional Investigation Team were pleased to be able to assist in bringing the case to a successful conclusion.
“This highlights the value and success of partnership working between local authority Trading Standards services and regional assets such as the Regional Investigation Teams.”
A number of canvassers and product demonstrators working for Life Comfort Products also accepted cautions, prior to the company, two directors and four employees pleading guilty.