What made you particularly interested in rogue traders and doorstep crime to begin with?
I joined trading standards 13 years ago, originally as an animal health officer. There was a restructuring shortly after I joined and soon after that I first encountered rogue trading and doorstep crime. It really opened my eyes to that whole area. I looked at what was happening and how it was being dealt with by trading standards and the police, and it absolutely fascinated me. The more I got that practical experience, the more I could see we weren’t really where we needed to be in order to provide an effective deterrent or meaningful sanctions. I wanted to look further into that and to try to do something a little bit different, in terms of questioning the efficacy of our approach.
When you first started dealing with doorstep crime, did meeting the victims have much of an effect?
Yes, definitely. You see the inordinate impact that it has on victims and you get a sense of how what you do and how you do it can mitigate that harm to a degree. When you boil down doorstep crime and rogue trading to its very base, what you’re looking at is financial exploitation and fraud. And yet, the response that I saw wasn’t really approaching it on those terms – when I joined trading standards, I think there was a tendency to look at it almost as a business-consumer transaction whereby a regulatory framework was seen as sufficient for dealing with it. And it seemed at odds with who these rogue traders were, and how they were going about their ‘business’ – when to all intents and purposes that was just a front for a fraud.
By and large the victims are elderly and vulnerable, and the offenders are career criminals, often with previous convictions for similar offences. It really ought to be a police priority and yet when you juxtaposed that with the response it seemed to be getting on the ground, it didn’t seem to tally. It fascinated me how on the one hand you had this really important workstream, and on the other hand, no one seemed to be seeing it for what it was at that point.
So these were the things that spurred you on to do the doctorate?
I’d already done a Masters in criminology back before I joined trading standards, and decided that further study might provide a stronger evidence-base in relation to rogue trading, so I signed up for a Professional Doctorate at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, at the University of Portsmouth. I was keen to do aprofessional doctorate, rather than a traditional PhD as it can have more real-world impact on policy and practice – I wanted to blend the academic and the practical to enable me to look more broadly at what was going on from an academic perspective, but also to see how practically we can improve it.
How did you go about conducting your research?
I wanted to take an evidence-based approach. Also, it struck me that nobody had really looked at this from a police perspective. I’d been working quite closely with Thames Valley Police at that point and I’d built up a good working relationship with them. I went to a senior Officer and pitched the project proposal, basically saying, “I want to know more about this crime type – I think there’s a lot going on here and I think we’re missing things.”
The structure of the course was quite helpful in that respect – the first two years had a modular structure, and one of those modules was effectively a pilot project. So I got permission to look at three months of the crime recording database for Thames Valley Police to analyse those incidents that related to rogue trading and doorstep crime. The results of that were published in an international peer-reviewed journal article in 2015. That really helped in terms of data access and demonstrating my credentials to the police for the next stage of the doctorate. ultimately that turned the pilot project into a bigger piece of work so my thesis was an examination of a year’s worth of crime recording database records from Thames Valley Police.
I was really looking at it via three strands: victimology – what we can learn from victim profiles; the offender’s MO and the anatomy of how rogue trading works; and the police response. The first thing that really leapt out was how hamstrung we are in gathering an evidence base in terms of how it’s recorded, so there’s a chapter in the thesis that looks at the whole issue of crime recording.
I draw a parallel between rogue trading and distraction burglary: if you want to go onto a database and find all the incidents of distraction burglary, you simply tick the crime code under which it appears, and all the relevant crimes will appear. Rogue trading does not benefit in the same way from having a definitive definition, so there is no crime code or crime flag by which to identify it. What I’m calling for in my work is the introduction nationally of a crime flag for rogue trading because at the moment, there just isn’t a way of easily retrieving the information that you need to.
Why do you think that has been the case historically?
I think when you look at the difference in approach between distraction burglary and rogue trading, it’s because distraction burglary was seen as unequivocally a crime, whereas with rogue trading we didn’t have the same legislative framework back then – we do now, if you think about what’s come in since then – the Fraud Act, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations and the Consumer Contracts Regulations in particular – they have enabled a far more robust legislative framework. There was previously, up to a point, a grey area between that which was seen as a civil dispute and that which was deliberate criminality. And rogue trading sat very much in the middle of that. I think by and large, that has now gone, but I think maybe things haven’t kept pace in terms of the ability to record data – and I think that’s probably down to resources and priorities as much as anything else.
This meant there were 10 different crime codes which could potentially contain rogue trading, depending on how it manifested. For instance, it could be recorded under criminal damage, it could be under one of the Action Fraud codes, or it could come under harassment if the criminal becomes intimidating when they try to get hold of their money. And each of those crime codes contains a multitude of other offences, not just rogue trading. Within those 10 crime codes there were 11,826 individual records which I needed to manually trawl though on the database.
Ultimately there were only 95 rogue trading incidents recorded within the Thames Valley area that year, but in order to find that out I had to sift through all those other reported crimes. The time that it takes to do that effectively creates a huge barrier to actually gaining an evidence base or learning about the crime type, because no crime researcher or analyst is going to have the time to do that.
Equally, performance management becomes quite difficult if you can’t easily find out things like your detection rate, or what charges are being brought – it makes it hard to get any kind of improvement.
Was there anything you uncovered that you found surprising?
Some of the findings will be familiar to people who work in this area – for example, roofing services were the most prevalent of the trade types employed by rogue traders. There were 44 incidents in which building work was conducted within the sample, and in 27 of those cases the cost increased as the work went along. That’s a very common tactic, known as ‘bouncing the job’ – rogue traders start with small tasks, but keep finding problems that lead to demands for higher payment. Things like the transporting of victims to the bank cropped up as well within the data and an overlap between rogue trading and distraction burglary was also apparent.
What was quite interesting though was how few incidents there were that related to trade types in which you’d usually expect to see membership of a Government-backed scheme. For instance, there was only one case that involved gas or electric work. That spoke volumes to me. It appears that the competency or accreditation required of those schemes is a massive barrier to rogue traders.
Did you get any idea of how rogue traders tend to come into contact with their victims?
One of the reasons I wanted to use police records was that it’s pre-existing material, so it’s not gathered for the purposes of research, meaning there’s no bias or model answers – and I thought that was really useful, and important when it came to examining the police response. But also it meant there were some things which would have been useful to study, but I wasn’t able to because there were gaps in the recording. One of those things is the approach type, which would have been quite interesting to see, but it just wasn’t recorded often enough. I think that, in itself, speaks volumes in terms of how the police see and deal with some of these incidents. There was a real superficiality to the records that surprised me. Financial loss, for instance, wasn’t even recorded in all of the cases, which strikes me as strange given that it forms such an important part of the sentencing guidelines in fraud cases.
I think there is a lack of knowledge, training and awareness around rogue trading itself and how it manifests, but also the legislative framework we now have is not familiar to police officers, and that was abundantly clear in the data. For instance, there were only four cases in the 95 incidents of rogue trading in which there was any regard for cancellation rights, or contracts, or paperwork even.
What would be your recommendations based on your findings?
I think first of all a crime flag, by which we can identify and retrieve information about incidents of rogue trading, is absolutely essential because without that, any scrutiny or initiative that we come up with is going to be impossible to monitor. That definition would have to come from the Home Office and it would need to be implemented by the police, and I would encourage the adoption of it across the board, including in trading standards.
I would also call for a much closer working relationship between the police and trading standards, as well as local authority care services, to improve both the safeguarding of vulnerable people and the enforcement outcomes.
Another recommendation is that there needs to be more training in the legislative framework, to be provided by trading standards to the police force. I know that isn’t always possible – there are some trading standards departments that barely have enough staff to do what they’re doing now, never mind rolling out training programmes to the police – but where possible I think that would be a real benefit.
Finally, a Government-backed official registration or licensing scheme could offer some real benefits and I think that should be explored. A national Government-backed scheme for the building trade would be a really useful means of levelling the playing field for legitimate businesses, and guarding against some of the considerable consumer harm that results from