Organised crime groups are playing an increased role in doorstep crime and other scams, according to the annual Consumer Harm Report published today by National Trading Standards (NTS).
These gangs frequently target vulnerable young men from deprived areas – such as those with alcohol and drug dependencies, people who are unemployed, homeless people and immigrants – to carry out substandard house ‘improvements’ and unnecessary repairs on people’s properties. Victims of the scams are often in vulnerable situations themselves – doorstep criminals tend to target residents living alone, often with an illness or a disability.
The most recent estimates from the National Crime Agency (NCA) have identified at least 181,000 people involved in serious and organised crime in the UK – more than twice the strength of the regular British Army. Recent high-profile cases have illustrated the dangerous approaches sometimes taken by criminal gangs to smuggle immigrant workers into the country. The numbers are thought to be growing, while referrals of potential victims of modern slavery increased by 36% in 2018 compared with the year before – a rise of more than 80% since 2016.
Meanwhile, financial losses from fraud soared by 32% between April and September 2018, and the use of modern slavery is increasingly being seen by trading standards officers investigating crimes against householders and consumers. Shoddy and sometimes dangerously unsafe maintenance and improvement work is carried out by enslaved labourers while unsuspecting householders are bullied into paying hugely inflated prices, often losing their life savings in the process.
Lord Toby Harris, Chair of NTS, said: “National Trading Standards investigators work every day with limited resources to protect consumers from criminals, including fraudsters, counterfeiters and gang-leaders. The doorstep scammer is not a lovable rogue. Often behind the person who turns up at your door offering cut-price services is a serious criminal. Not only are they happy to rip off older people, those living on their own, and indeed anyone who is taken in by their patter, but they may also be exploiting and even enslaving vulnerable people to help them carry out their crimes.
“Consumers need to be vigilant to old scams wrapped in 21st-century packaging and to ruthless criminals who will stop at nothing in pursuit of ill-gotten riches. The international nature of organised crime means trading standards officers must work closely with domestic and international partners to disrupt these operations.”
The National Crime Agency leads on serious and organised crime within the UK, but more cross-cutting issues are straying into the trading standards world.
Other emerging threats identified by the report include:
- Health and diet supplement scams – these often involve unproven or untested products sold via overseas-based call centres.
- Connected devices and the ‘Internet of Things’ – increasing numbers of household consumer devices – including smart speakers, connected TVs and internet-connected ovens – connect to the internet by default, increasing the risk of devices being exploited to cause consumer harm.
- ‘Copycat’ adverts on social media – the popularity of social media sites as selling platforms enables counterfeiters to increase their reach when selling unsafe, counterfeit or stolen goods by targeting time-poor consumers with lookalike adverts in their feeds.
- Misleading search engine adverts – a rising trend of misleading adverts to appear at the top of search engine results which encourage users to call them for services such as technical support and IT issues. With more searches being made by smartphone, users act on these adds immediately and call through to fraudulent phone lines.