There’s many types of rogue trader out there, CTSI has picked Shady, Costly, Lazy and Clumsy for its campaign. What others would you add to that list?
Well, if you want the full seven dwarves, I’d add Devious, Manipulative and Invasive to the list – particularly when it comes to salespersons. I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling of listening to a salesforce laugh among themselves about how they’ve ripped off the elderly and vulnerable in their own front rooms. It’s not pleasant.
You’ve encountered all types of rogue trader. What, if anything, do they have in common?
That’s difficult – they do come in a variety of shapes and sizes. What they tend to share is that they’ve found a way to convince themselves that what they are doing is, in some way justified, either because it’s the only way they can make a living, because the rules don’t apply to them or because they feel that everyone else is doing it. I suppose the first person they have to trick is themselves, otherwise how do you get up in the morning and go out to con someone? You couldn’t live with yourself.
How easy is it, in your experience, to spot a rogue trader?
It’s not easy at all, and it seems like it’s getting harder. A lot of the advice I was giving out when we started twenty years ago just doesn’t work any more. For instance, I used to say only use a company with a landline. A landline doesn’t give you any kind of insurance any more – they’re portable. I used to say avoid the biggest ad in the yellow pages. But everyone uses the internet now, which can make a tradesperson look local when they are in fact a scam that’s running nationwide, using a number of different names and assumed locations. These are both examples of how consumers can be made to think that there is traceability and accountability for whoever they’re dealing with. The reality is that in many case, reputational loss isn’t really an issue for these companies. You’ll never find them, and if you do, they aren’t part of a smaller community where they have to keep their good name to stay in business.
What should consumers try to find out before they buy from a business or look for a service?
The big upside to the way things are now is that consumers are sharing their experiences online. The number of times I interview people who only read these reviews AFTER they’ve been scammed is a bit disappointing. I think we’re often in such a hurry to secure the services of someone to fix our roof or boiler, that we can say yes, and hope for the best, rather than do a bit of homework first. And never, never accept services from someone out of the blue. Make sure you initiate the process.
How do you know if you are buying from a reputable business?
Well, sadly, you’ll never know for sure until they’ve gone and the work they’ve done still holds up a decade later. The truth is that all the accreditation in the world is only as good as the trader feels that day. But it’s always worth asking the question: if this goes wrong, what does this guy have to lose? Is he on a list from my council from which he could be dropped? Do my neighbours use him regularly, so that he could lose his good name? Is he part of an organisation which could kick him out? Is he still waiting for payment for the majority of the job, which he would not receive if he doesn’t complete? All of these are in your favour, but there really is no guarantee.
What’s been your worst experience with a Shady contractor?
We infiltrated a rogue damp-proofing company who were selling to people in their own homes. Our undercover trainee salesman heard a colleague laugh while boasting that he’d taken £25,000 from a young man with learning difficulties after he was left the money in his parents’ will. It goes without saying that the work wasn’t necessary. The salesman did admit ‘I’ll go to hell for that one,’ which, if such a place exists, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. We caught him in the act doing the same thing in another house, and if he was indeed off to hell, he went there at speed, in a Vauxhall Astra.
What’s been your worst experience with a Costly contractor?
We’ve just featured a group of rogue tree surgeons who claimed that they had to charge £3.75 a kilo to dispose of our green waste. The total bill came to £6000, a ridiculous figure, as they’d only trimmed a small apple tree. The fact that they had been successful at charging these sums goes to show the effect that having a stranger in your kitchen can have. You’ll part with your money just to get rid of them, and logic only really kicks in the moment they’ve left.
What’s been your worst experience with a Lazy contractor?
A plumber we witnessed a few years ago was tasked with replacing a ball valve float, a very, very simple job. He spent over two hours hitting various parts of the bathroom with his tools to make it sound like he was working, a bit like a rock drummer but in slow motion. Of course, this resulted in an inflated bill, but what made it worse was that at the end of the session, we had a leak which wasn’t there previously.
What’s been your worst experience with a Clumsy contractor?
One of the scariest things I’ve ever witnessed was a roofer who left his young apprentice by himself to clean a roof. We watched him on the secret cameras as he teetered on a rain-slick pitched roof in a pair of garden centre wellies with a pressure washer in one hand and texting with the other. No harness, no scaffolding. When he got to ground-level he needed to charge his phone, so he sawed off the end of a mains lead and tried to poke the live ends into the socket with his wet hands. If he’s alive today, it’s partially because we shut off the electricity in the house before he could kill himself.
How bad do you think the problem of fake reviews is getting?
It’s a worry, but I also think a lot of people who read those reviews can spot when someone’s trying to pull the wool. Often you only have to scroll down past the first page of glowing nonsense from J. Peters of Petersfield to find the real dirt on a company. Meaningful reviews usually have some neutral or negative comment in them, even if their overall message is positive. Fake reviews rarely do.
Have any of the consumers you’ve helped run checks, but were reading fake reviews?
I’ll be honest, with the companies we deal with, it doesn’t take long to find the bad stuff. I think often people just don’t think to check, or are being lied to in such a wholesale fashion, that they feel they have enough assurance. You just feel ‘Well they can’t say that if they’re not for real, surely?’. But these are often traders whose business model is to shoot for the moon, go for bust, and then change name and location.
If someone is taken in by a rogue trader, what recourse do they have and how easy is it for them to get justice?
Prevention is always better than cure. Realistically, in my experience, your chances of getting your money back are always slim. But that’s not a reason not to report them to your local trading standards authority. You could be contributing to helping to protect others from the same fate by disrupting their business and forcing them to change tack earlier than they would otherwise. Like us, Trading Standards rely on intelligence to do their work, and although it might seem as if your money has gone, you could still be making a difference by telling TS about what’s happened and ensuring that the Rogues don’t have the last laugh.
CCAS is recommending consumers do their research first, check if the business is approved, look on the online directory and above all look for the Approved code logo. Do you think the scheme will mitigate the damage rogue traders can do?
As long as it’s effectively enforced, I think anything that gives customers a more concrete set of rules and an accountability structure is a good thing. Searching the CCAS directory clearly helps sort the sheep from the goats when choosing a trader, sets out expectations, and is a starting point for putting things right when they go wrong.
The Consumer Codes Approval scheme aims at improving customer service standards through the approval and promotion of codes of practice overseen by code sponsors, approved by the Chartered Trading Standards institute (CTSI).
Membership of a code of practice can be a more reliable indicator of quality than online reviews, and member companies’ work is backed up by a robust complaints and ADR procedure.
Consumers can look out for the CTSI approved code logo when searching for a business. They can be confident that any approved business they choose has a proven commitment to honest business and higher customer standards.
To find out more go to https://www.tradingstandards.uk/consumercodes