A ‘snake-oil salesman’ was spared jail over his highly-profitable business renting out fake ‘ultrasonic liposuction’ slimming devices from his Rugby office.
UK Weight Loss Network boss Aaron O’Brian Nickols advertised the devices, which he had bought from China for just £170 a piece, for rent at £49 a week to unsuspecting customers.
In a prosecution brought by Warwickshire Trading Standards, he pleaded guilty to supplying unsafe appliances and engaging in a commercial practice which contravened the requirements of professional diligence, but denied other charges.
At a further hearing, shortly before he was due to stand trial, Nickols, who ran his business from premises in Rugby and Wolston, admitted a further offence of placing false or misleading adverts in newspapers.
He was sentenced to nine months in prison suspended for two years at Coventry Crown Court yesterday (Thursday, May 19), following an adjournment for a pre-sentence report to be prepared on him
Nickols, 34, of Sketchley Old Village, Burbage, near Hinckley, was also ordered to do 150 hours of unpaid work and to pay £5,000 towards the prosecution costs.
Tony Watkin, prosecuting on behalf of Warwickshire Trading Standards, said that in entering his pleas and agreeing to an undertaking under the Enterprise Act not to engage in a similar business, there was ‘an acceptance of the facts’ by Nickols, ‘but with no admission of dishonesty.’
He described Nickols as ‘a failed businessman’ who had been prohibited from working as a financial advisor, had county court judgements against him and was made bankrupt in 2011.
The following year he became involved with his father’s slimming business and then set up UK Weight Loss Network, with himself registered as a sole trader, in 2013.
The offences covered an 18-month period from May, 2014, to October, 2015, when Nickols placed adverts in national newspapers, including the Times, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express, for ‘Ultrasonic Liposuction’ devices.
The ads claimed customers who rented the devices could reduce body fat without exercise or dieting.
“If they placed the device on fatty areas of their body, low frequency ultrasound would break the fat down, and waste fat would be excreted through urination,” it was claimed.
The ‘full-fat version’ of the ad, claiming ‘new device shifts stubborn fat’ by a method called ‘cavitation’ was in the case papers, Mr Watkin told the judge.
“The defendant bought something in the order of 400 of them from a Chinese manufacturer via E-bay, paying £170 for each.
“It was suggested the advertised rental price of £49 a week was half price, although there’s no evidence it was ever higher than that.”
The business provided Nickols with ‘a reasonably good income,’ with a turnover of around £400,000 from ‘some 4,000 clients who rented what were non-effective, useless devices’.
Mr Watkin said: “The devices themselves were not safe, and were not subjected to safety tests and regulations when they were imported.
“They didn’t meet electrical safety requirements, and on occasions overheated or were giving off electric shocks.”
Customers were also denied legal cancellation rights, and he used misleading addresses and names, including an address in Manchester which was just a virtual post box address.
He later used different addresses in Regent Place, Rugby, and Priory Road, Wolston, as well as using the name Paul Jones when negotiating the leasing and when dealing with customers and other businesses.
Other correspondence with customers who complained about the devices and asked for refunds, which were not forthcoming, was carried out by him as Jones or using the name Sarah Price – who he later said had worked for the business at some stage.
Customers who complained about defective devices were denied refunds on the basis that no faults could be found, while others who complained of getting no results from them were told there was no money-back guarantee.
Nickols was contacted by Trading Standards officers who explained the rights customers were entitled to in law, and gave him a detailed booklet, ‘but he continued to fail to comply with the law’.
Mr Watkin said some customers did receive refunds after fighting for them, and ‘my understanding is that since April, he has refunded all but one customer who have requested refunds’.
One device rented by a trading standards officer was sent away for testing, and it was found there was no manufacturer’s name on it, no electrical supply rating, and no fuse to the plug, causing ‘a significant risk’ of electrical shock.
“A number of consumers had complained about the safety of the devices. One said it kept giving him shocks, another said it blew up when he turned it on, another said the head came undone, revealing the wires, and another said it was overheating hot enough to burn her skin.”
And the judge, Recorder Peter Ievins, commented: “I am satisfied the devices were entirely sham.”
Tim Pole, defending, countered: “There is a significant difference between fraudulent trading and the regulatory offences this defendant has pleaded guilty to, and which the prosecution have accepted.
“The key element, of course, is dishonesty and acting fraudulently, which is not present in the offences Your Honour has to deal with this defendant for.”
Mr Pole said Nickols had been ‘open to guidance’ from Trading Standards, and had told them that if they told him to stop trading, he would, and that he wanted to operate ‘on the right side of the law.’
He pointed out that such devices had been approved by a Canadian medical journal, but conceded: “It seems obvious now in hindsight that those products provided little effect. He has ceased trading.”
Recorder Ievins told Nickols: “I’m satisfied you are a snake-oil salesman, and I sentence you for the two offences on the indictment to which you have pleaded guilty, and for a summary-only offence.
“These are serious offences that cover a significant period of time. Large sums of money are involved, which afforded you a comfortable lifestyle.”