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The subject may be different but the trick is the same: bogus firms with official sounding names send out letters warning businesses they have a legal duty to register or be punished and offering to help them complete the process for a fee.

Of course, there is either no legal obligation for the firms to register or, if they do need to, they can do so easily by paying a far lower fee to the real authorities.

The data protection scam has been running for several years and has caused such a problem that the Government watchdog has even set up a bogus firms listing on its website. The new scam, which has come to light after a dealer complained to the British Antique Dealers’ Association, involves warning notices sent out by an organisation calling itself the Health & Safety Registration Enforcement Division, which gives an address in Rochdale.

The letter advises the recipient that records show they are not registered under Health & Safety Act 1974, EU directives 1992, HSE regulations 2003. It goes on to warn them that failure to comply may result in owners or directors of their business facing prosecution and up to two years imprisonment. Then it concludes: “To avoid further action please return the enclosed form immediately,” and asks for a £199 fee from those who are compliant but not yet registered and £249 from those who are not yet compliant.

The real Health and Safety Executive say they have received hundreds of complaints about the scam from all over the country. They say there are three bogus companies behind the operation, all based in the North West. As well as the Rochdale firm, they warn against a Liverpool firm calling itself the Health and Safety Enforcement Agency (HSEA), which demands £125 for a health and safety compliance pack, and the Manchester-based Health and Safety Compliance Agency (HSCA), which says a health and safety compliance register became law on May 1 and that all businesses should apply for registration, for a fee of £129.25.

Justin McCracken, HSE’s deputy directory general, said: “None of these companies is connected to HSE... All three firms use wording suggesting they are official enforcement bodies, but they are not.” He confirmed that the HSE never writes indiscriminately to firms seeking advance payment for services which it has not provided. He also made it clear that the information for which the bogus firms were asking for payment was available free of charge from the HSE or at a far lower cost. “HSE’s legitimate Health and Safety Starter Pack is available to any business for £30. Not only does the pack cost a lot less than the information provided by these companies, but it is also the real thing.”

HSE is liaising with trading standards offices and the police, who are investigating all three companies.