Friday, 1 August 2008


At best it's annoying, but at worst an encounter with a doorstep smoothtalker can be extremely dangerous. You could get ripped off with a dud deal, caught out by a scam that costs you thousands or have your home sussed out for local burglars; the list of crimes and misdemeanours is endless.

Help is at hand, however, from your local council. Trading standards departments exist in each council (or county councils in rural England) and are expert at everything from advising on how to deal with defective goods and repel doorstep nuisances, right through to the really serious stuff like combating loan sharks. This is where to turn when you've been ripped off, sold a pup or signed an unwise contract.

Trading standards departments can not only offer plenty of useful advice on dealing with rogue traders and how to secure your rights as a consumer, they also have the power to prosecute where a crime has occurred.

Having the builders in Having builders working in your home can be difficult even when they are a reputable firm doing a good job, and more stressful still when they turn out to be cowboys who do shoddy work, charge too much or 'find' unnecessary work that they claim needs to be done. Trading standards officers warn that cowboy builders prey upon most people's reluctance to dispute the technicalities of building with a tradesman.

Cowboy builders may be initially polite and have vans with a company name or a description like 'maintenance' on them. The danger signals come when the cowboy quotes a low price without doing a thorough survey, claims work must be done right away, and uses no paperwork. That price will only go up once the work starts. Using a builder who belongs to a trade association, such as the National Federation of Builders or Federation of Master Builders, will reduce the risk.

Another common scam is the bogus 'free' damp proof survey, where someone claims to be a surveyor and says that a damp problem has been found in the area.

The surveyor will find damp, whether or not it is really there, and demand an immediate large deposit for the work, which will probably be the last that the householder sees of their money. Again, to reduce the risks, look for a surveyor which is a member of the British Wood Preserving and Damp Proofing Association, as they will be governed by its code of conduct.

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In other cases, trading standards can use the Enterprise Act against disreputable builders. Martin Bruton, consumer services manger at Gloucestershire County Council, cites an example.

"If a trader is routinely not giving people their statutory rights we can apply for a court order under the act to require him to desist from unlawful practice and if they do not change their conduct it is contempt of court," he says. "I had one case with a problem builder who had been taking large deposits from people and leaving them with half a job done. That builder ignored the order and was sentenced to nine months in jail."

The climate for fraud Public concern about climate change is increasing, with many people wishing to help to reduce both carbon emissions and their own fuel bills. Unfortunately, this laudable goal also provides an opening for fraudsters.

Leon Livermore, head of trading standards at Cambridgeshire County Council, says: "We know that climate change equipment is where the con artists who used to just do double-glazing will move to next. There is quite a bit of dodgy selling going on with solar panels and home wind turbines. That is likely to get worse as public concern grows about climate change, and energy price rises, because people will try to protect themselves by using renewable energy. It will attract rogue traders - the people who sell things that fall to bits or don't work." The greatest pests, he says, "are the high pressure salesmen who people let into their homes where they stay for hours and people sign up just to get rid of them".

Finding out whether or not climate change equipment works can be difficult, because these devices "have to be in-situ for a while before you can be sure," Livermore says. By the time their goods have been proven not to work, the trader who sold them will no doubt be long gone. But consumers can protect themselves, he explains. "We don't actually endorse products, but many trading standards departments run approved trader schemes, sometimes called 'buy with confidence'," he adds.

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"That means there is arbitration in the event of disputes and the whole idea is to give confidence that one is dealing with a reputable trader. Even the best trader is going to sell a defective product sometimes, it just happens, and the test of a good trader is how they react to that."

The Office of Fair Trading additionally approves particular trade associations, members of which must adhere to its standards.

Put out the unwelcome mat In order to prevent more people being caught out by such rogue traders, trading standards are increasingly erecting 'no cold calling zone' signs in streets to try and deter those attempting to sell poor quality goods at the door, con people into signing dubious contracts or carry out a robbery.

They are put there by trading standards once evidence of a problem with cold callers emerges, and show that residents will be alert to scams. Bryan Lewin, chairman of the Trading Standards Institute, says: "No cold-call zones are used where there have been problems with doorstep burglary and doorstep sellers. They make residents feel safer."

But while trading standards is playing its part, the best way to protect yourself is to be alert to the risks. Doorstep crime comes in many shapes and sizes. "You get people claiming to be from your water or gas company or they might say their child has thrown a ball into the garden, they want to use the toilet urgently, the list of excuses to get into a home is endless and very inventive," Lewin says. "The people who do this are clever and one should never underestimate the skills they use to gain access to a home.

"The problem can be not just burglary there and then; they may also sell information in a pub or somewhere by telling a criminal 'I know where there is an 80-year-old with a lot of valuable stuff and the address is yours for £50'."

Even when cold-callers aren't criminals, they can still be a nuisance and as a result there are a number of regulations in place to protect consumers. So to ensure you don't find your living room transformed into a high-pressure sales environment it still pays to know your rights.

The Doorstep Selling Regulations were introduced in 1987 and apply to most of such transactions, unless you invited a trader to call. They specify that residents have a seven-day cooling-off period in which to cancel any agreement. They also made it a criminal offence for traders not to inform customers in writing of their right to the cooling-off period and also required them to provide a notice setting out cancellation rights.

But again the best protection is not to let strangers into your home in the first place, however smooth or charming the patter.

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