Jailed mobility furniture firm boss 'robbed vulnerable customers of financial security'
Supplied by Suffolk Trading Standards
Suffolk mobility furniture company boss David Waters was sent to jail on Thursday for leaving elderly and disabled customers £80,000 out of pocket through fraudulent trading.
Waters, 71, of Manwick Road, Felixstowe, and his company Anchor Mobility Limited had denied a string of unfair trading offences brought following an investigation by Suffolk Trading Standards.
More than 20 customers from across the country paid Waters for furniture, including reclining chairs, sofas and beds, which they never received.
The £2.3m turnover company and Waters also denied 13 offences of being engaged in misleading commercial practices by failing to fulfil representations that furniture would be delivered within an agreed time period.
Today, he was sentenced to 32 months' custody, made the subject of a criminal behaviour order and banned from being a company director for 10 years.
Anchor Mobility was fined £1,000 for each count of unfair commercial practice.
A confiscation hearing will address the matter of compensation in the new year.
Waters had previously run a similar business called Mobility UK Ltd.
In 2013, he and the company pleaded guilty to several offences under consumer protection and unfair trading regulations.
After Mobilty UK Ltd, he ran two more businesses - UK Mobilty Direct and Westminster Recliners - and had taken out a £300,000 loan from a finance company.
Waters was repaying the debts of Westminster Recliners Ltd when money was received by Anchor from customers, the court heard during the trial.
-Among Waters' victims, Patricia Cherrington, from Gosport, Hampshire, paid Anchor Mobility almost £3,500 for a specialised bed she never received.
Mrs Cherrington agreed to buy the product to help her 76-year-old husband David, who, following two strokes, had great difficulty getting in and out of bed.
In June, 2017, she paid £3,495 up-front in order to receive a five-year warranty on the bed.
Prosecutor John Goulding read the court a selection of statements from victims, including full-time carer Lisa Walker, who was compensated by the Financial Ombudsman Service but left feeling "terrible and unable to cope with stress" after promising her disabled daughter a new bed, funded with money from the will of her late brother.
Rosemary Smith felt sickened after losing money saved from pension credit, while Florence was diagnosed with cancer while fighting to reclaim money she "scrapped and scraped" to afford.
Gareth Hughes, mitigating, said Waters had not acted fraudulently from the outset, but buried his head in the sand when unable to meet obligations.
Mr Hughes said: "He is a proud man who tried to trade through the difficulties. In the end, that wasn't possible, and it caused loss to customers."
He said Waters had been recently diagnosed with depressive disorders, compounded by ongoing hypertension and diabetes.
Judge Emma Peters said she accepted Waters had his own health difficulties, and was responsible for the needs of his elderly father and a son with significant mental health difficulties, but added: "It's a great shame you weren't able to recognise the needs of many other vulnerable people whose lives you affected as a result of your fraudulent trading.
"My public duty demands I deter you and others from offending."
-Judge Peters praised the work of Suffolk Trading Standards and singled out senior officer Stuart Hughes for a certificate of commendation, adding: "He took on the investigation and did all he could to urge fair practice on this company.
"When it became clear that no amount of encouragement would prevent elderly and vulnerable customers from losing their money, he took on an exhaustive investigation, requiring an extraordinary amount of detail and investment of time."
After the hearing, Stuart Hughes said: "I'm pleased the verdict has adequately recognised the callous attitude Mr Waters exhibited by exploiting elderly, vulnerable and disabled customers.
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"Having heard directly from his victims throughout the trial, I hope this verdict provides them with some satisfaction that justice has been done, and provides Mr Waters with an opportunity to reflect on the serious consequences of his offending.
"His victims paid money in good faith, often up front, for furniture intended to improve their quality of life.
"Anchor Mobility Limited and David Waters owed their customers a special duty of care, but instead caused vulnerable people great stress, anger and financial loss that they could ill afford."
Councillor Richard Rout, Suffolk County Council's cabinet member for environment and public protection, said:
"This has been a case full of despicable actions and my thoughts continue to be with all those who have suffered, both emotionally and financially.
"Mr Waters will now have to live with the custodial consequences of misleading his customers and abusing his position of power.
"I am grateful to our Trading Standards officers, partner agencies and the National Trading Standards Tri Regional Investigation Team (East of England, London & South East) for helping bring Mr Waters to justice.
"We want a level playing field for Suffolk's honest traders, and to help protect the legitimate economy of our county and beyond."
-Sentencing Waters, Judge Emma Peters remarked: "In October 2016 you set up a company and remained its sole director through to its demise in August 2017.
"While you told a jury you were director in name only, it was as clear to me as it was to the jury that you well knew the company and its salesman - of which you were one - were taking payment from customers without delivering goods; were pressuring customers into purchasing goods and failing to pay refunds.
"You bore responsibility for fraudulent trading. In my view, you not only knew about it, you drove it.
"The very nature of the business was that goods were needed by an elderly, infirm and disabled customers base.
"It's notable that this wasn't your first foray into the world of mobility furniture.
"You pleaded guilty to a number of consumer protection offences and were fined in 2013. You were then involved in UK Mobilty Direct and Westminster Recliners.
"It was very obvious that Westminster Recliners had financial difficulties. In 2014, you personally guaranteed liability, which demonstrates you not only understood the vulnerability of the customer base, but were well aware of the consequences of failing to conform to fair trade regulations.
"You were aware that £132,000 of Anchor Mobility customers' money was being siphoned off to pay the ongoing liability you had taken on. The money was being paid to Akira financial services to finance the debt.
"Manufacturers never had any hope of receiving deposits, so you sought to move business around those manufacturers when they cut off any further credit to you.
"You were all too aware that when elderly, ill and vulnerable customers placed their trust in Anchor Mobility, they had a limited reality of ever receiving those goods.
"Some 26 customers paid in excess of £80,000 and lost their money. They were encouraged to pay the full amount up front; they paid cash within days and were promised delivery within weeks, but months and years later, their chairs and refunds never arrived.
"In January 2017, when deposits were being paid directly to manufacturers, you personally visited a customer to take money and never passed it on. The money would disappear into your financial morass.
"I can only assume the company has no money, so the fine would be a notional and nominal sum.
"What is a continuing theme of the victims' personal impact statements is that these weren't rich people sitting back in large comfortable houses, able to part with thousands of pounds.
"These were people who saved up to celebrate their golden wedding with chairs from your company; people with a severely disabled daughter who needed a more comfortable bed and decided to use inheritance money to ease her pain; people suffering from many medical conditions, who can't afford to buy another chair or bed, and were all left feeling stupid for being taken in.
"You told a jury you kept things going to help the customers. I wholeheartedly reject that. If you had told any of them the truth, they would never have parted with their money.
"They sought to make their lives more comfortable - sometimes at the expense of holidays and other such pleasures.
"You were given assistance at a very early stage, but carried on regardless. You robbed them of financial security at a particularly vulnerable time of their lives.
"Those who trade in business with customers must know that, when they resort to such fraudulent trading, there is a very real risk of losing their liberty - when a tenacious Trading Standards department pursues their cases to justice, and when they fail to heed warnings and advice."