An elderly and vulnerable Rugby man was pressured into paying nearly £10,000 for supposed health supplements that turned out to be “nothing of the sort” – and might have made him ill.
Sanda Wellbeing Ltd, a UK-based company specialising in telesales of high-value health supplements, has been found guilty of four offences relating to supplements sold to the 89-year-old following a prosecution brought by Warwickshire County Council’s Trading Standards Service.
Magistrates in Leamington heard that Sanda Wellbeing Ltd used an Indian call centre run by a closely connected Indian firm, Sanda Wellbeing, to generate sales. It targeted affluent home owners with a credit or debit card, aged over 50, who had either reported suffering from mobility issues or who may be interested in buying health supplements.
Telesales staff followed scripts instructing them to make a number of claims as to the benefits of the products. Customers were offered the services of “nutritional experts” to provide recommendations, not only about supplements, but also about diet and lifestyle. Each order was sent out with an accompanying letter thanking the customer for their trust and reassuring them as to the company’s focus on quality products and extraordinary customer service.
Warwickshire Trading Standards began its investigation following a report that the man had paid £9,949 to the company over an 18-month period. A wide range of products had been supplied to the customer which between them promised numerous benefits including improvements to the immune system, reducing the signs of ageing, maintaining joint flexibility, better prostate health, weight control, or a “healthy heart and mind”.
Trading Standards arranged for the products to be analysed, following which a dietician provided an expert opinion as to their nutritional value. Some of the supplements simply did not contain the promised levels of nutrients. For example, a “Pomy” product promised to give “all the goodness of pomegranate” - this being that “Pomegranate’s unique compounds are rich in folic acid, vitamin A, B3, C and E”. Analysis revealed negligible quantities of some of these nutrients, with less than 0.01 per cent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C being contained.
A number of the supplements overlapped in their nutrient content - so, by taking them in accordance with the recommendations on the packs, the man would exceed his recommended daily allowance. In most cases this would not have been detrimental to health, although the dietician’s evidence was that there are no scientifically validated reasons for taking vitamins in doses higher than the recommended range. However, in the case of Vitamin A, excess intake is reported to have been associated with decreased bone density and increased risk of hip fracture. By taking all the products sold to him in accordance with the instructions on the packs, the customer’s vitamin A intake would have been significantly over the recommended daily allowance and could have been detrimental to health.
The investigation revealed that the considerable quantities of the products supplied, if taken in accordance with the recommended dosage instructions, would have lasted several years. In some cases the products would have exceeded their ‘best before’ date long before they could all have been taken – for example the customer was found to have over 5½ years’ supply of a product which had less than two years until it exceeded its ‘best before’ date.
The court heard that the company had no procedures in place to prevent inappropriate quantities and/or combinations of products being sold to customers, nor were upper limits applied to ensure products didn’t contain excessive levels of nutrients, such as vitamin A, as compared with the content stated on the label. The company was found guilty of three offences under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations arising from the sale of its products to the elderly customer and a further offence under the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulations relating to a misleading claim about the levels of nutrients present in the product Pomy .
Sentencing, District Judge David Robertson stated that the court regarded the offences as serious and significant breaches of consumer protection legislation. He found that Sanda Wellbeing Ltd took advantage of an elderly man’s vulnerability, selling him quantities of supplements through what purported to be a high end service using a sophisticated and targeted approach. The products purported to be of a certain quality, supported by research, but were in fact “nothing of the sort claimed”. He added that the company had shown a reckless disregard for the requirements of professional diligence and had sold the customer inappropriate combinations of supplements in inappropriate quantities.
The judge went on to say that, in deciding how to punish the company, he must take account of the high seriousness with which he viewed the matter, but also the financial circumstances of the company. Official records showed that the company had traded at a loss, had no assets and was now in liquidation. Having emphasised that a fine was warranted, he took into account the fact that prosecution costs and compensation for the customer had been paid by one of the company’s directors. For these reasons a three-year conditional discharge was imposed for each charge.
Cllr Les Caborn, the county councillor responsible for community safety, said: “We very often hear of people who feel pressurised by telemarketing calls. Many end up spending thousands of pounds on products they did not want or need. I am delighted that the Trading Standards Service has been able to take action to protect consumers.”
Warwickshire County Councillor Richard Chattaway, chairman of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee, added: “Warwickshire Trading Standards is committed to helping to protect and support elderly and vulnerable consumers.”
The prosecution offered no evidence against Ajit Ramanlal Patel of Burleigh Lane, Crawley Down, West Sussex, who was a director of Sanda Wellbeing Ltd at the time the offences were committed. Mr Patel was acquitted on all charges.
Mr Patel paid prosecution costs and compensation to the customer, together totalling £41,500. He gave undertakings to Warwickshire Trading Standards that he will not, in his current or future businesses, engage in the type of conduct for which Sanda Wellbeing Ltd was convicted under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.