A recent press release from the OFT has warned that the current summer is likely to prompt an increase in rogue traders, as consumers realise that the combination of light evenings and lack of rain make perfect conditions for home improvements.
This is based on the reported 15% rise of such complaints to Consumer Direct in the summer of 2009, compared to the year before. Yet with such prominent consumer warnings, high profile advice portholes, and a never ending list of websites designed to help consumers choose trustworthy traders, should the number of complaints not be on the decline?
A simple internet search of how to find a reliable trader will pull up a number of different schemes and sites for consumers to use. Trustmark is the government backed, not for profit scheme launched five years ago. Whilst it has built up an impressive database of traders, and is endorsed by Trading Standards and Consumer Direct, it has failed in its plan to be the one stop shop for all consumers, but instead is just one of many.
Other schemes include Rated People, Trust a Trader and Transpact, which run alongside other sources of information such as local authority schemes and Which surveys. Combine these with popular TV programmes such as Watchdog, and Rogue Traders and it’s difficult to understand how anyone could now be caught out by a cowboy builder or similar.
Yet just over the last couple of months there are reports in the news of all different sorts of problems. Worcestershire Trading Standards are attempting to clamp down on people purporting to be social care professionals, using high pressure sales techniques to push unnecessary mobility equipment. Essex are warning people to refuse dealings with a trader offering to carry out unnecessary repairs on their homes, and Westminster have just successfully prosecuted a bogus locksmith who defrauded thousands of customers by deliberately causing more damage to the locks and fitting cheap replacements. Every week it is easy to find details in the press of the latest rogue trader to hit our streets.
But perhaps, rather than rogue traders themselves being on the increase, it is actually the reporting of them which has intensified. For a long time now, Trading Standards have worked to ensure that consumers are savvier, aware of their rights, and alert to being ripped off. The launch of Consumer Direct in 2004 has proved highly successful in both the providing of advice, and warning of scams and rogue trader activity. The success of the aforementioned TV programmes also ensures information reaches a wider audience. Generally, the existence of rogue traders and how to avoid them is of far greater profile now.
A recent article in TS Today by Cumbria Trading Standards highlights the link between rogue trader information to the masses, and increased complaints. One of their dodgy traders was photographed and appeared in a daytime news item. He was recognised by three other people who had been duped by the same man and so they then complained. This will be repeated numerous times across the country, and figures of complaints about rogue traders will increase as if the problem is escalating. Yet in this case, more people were being astute enough to come forward and complain.
No doubt with the current economic climate, and warm dry summer, there will be more scope for rogue traders to have their opportunities. But hopefully what we can interpret from the figures is an increasing awareness from consumers of who they can turn to when things go wrong, and how to spot when they are being conned. Whilst the coalition government makes no specific reference to rogue traders in its manifesto, they do call for greater protection of consumers in general, particularly the vulnerable, and the promotion of more responsible consumer behaviour. Trading Standards must continue to highlight the dangers and how consumers can help protect themselves. This will be through partnership working on campaigns, but also in publicising action taken against the criminals.
Alison is a Trading Standards Expert and regularly contributes to Barbour’s weekly briefings. To find out more about our briefings, click this link here.