How a free service from Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards can direct you to reliable, honest tradespeople in your area
Last year a rogue North Devon plumber and heating engineer was sentenced for the latest in a string of fraud and consumer protection offences. He had a record of carrying out substandard and vastly overpriced work. A few years previously, he had charged an elderly customer more than £25,000 for replacing an oil-fired heating system. His faulty installation left the customer at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and could also have caused a fire.
Despite clearly being a dishonest trader, this man had falsely advertised himself as a member of a trade association. Many of his customers would have been reassured by what looked like a guarantee of high professional standards; instead, he put people's homes, and even their lives, at risk.
So, how can you spot a rogue trader?
The Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards team has a clear profile of how rogue traders operate, which can help you identify them: "Not every cold caller is a rogue trader, but it is very likely. They will probably be offering services like roofing work, driveway repairs and/or cleaning, or gardening and tree cutting.
"They may say they work for the council or another authority, and show identification cards to try to look legitimate. Or, they may claim that work needs doing urgently, when in fact it is unnecessary, or they are exaggerating the extent of work which does need doing. In some cases they have even been known to cause deliberate damage, creating work for themselves.
"They will do a very poor job and overcharge for it, or sometimes not even complete the work and then vanish. They usually ask for payment upfront and may even offer to drive you to the bank to get cash. And of course, they won't provide any paperwork, ignoring the 14-day cooling-off period that they are legally required to provide."
Of course, there are incompetent or dishonest operators in all lines of work, but some trades do seem to attract a high number of them. And these are typically in the kind of work for which people need an experienced expert; someone they can trust to do a good job and offer a high standard of customer service. Builders, plumbers, electricians, roofers, car repairers and people who lay driveways; their services do not come cheaply. How can you find a tradesperson you can trust, preferably someone you know is genuinely approved by Trading Standards?
The good news is that, for several years now, Devon, Somerset and Torbay Trading Standards has been running a register of reliable businesses, under its not-for-profit Buy With Confidence scheme. Traders put themselves forward as potential members, and must then pass an audit tailored to their line of business.
Trading Standards will visit their business, look into their complaints history, and where relevant, check for criminal records. They will ask for references from previous customers, and require them to sign up to a code of conduct. Once accepted as a member, a trader's performance will continue to be monitored through feedback and periodic re-audits.
If a problem does arise, customers can report it to Buy With Confidence.
Both customers and businesses can come to Trading Standards for impartial advice and potentially mediation, if communication between the two parties has broken down. By using a Buy With Confidence member you always have the peace of mind that there is back-up and support in the unlikely event that things do go wrong.
In North Devon dozens of traders have signed up to this scheme. You can look them up online, free of charge, or phone and ask for the details of suitable businesses in your local area. If you do this you can be confident that Trading Standards has already done all the checking and vetting you would want to do yourself.
But there is another thing to bear in mind - and it is something that often works in favour of the rogue traders. The fact is that they are often called out in response to a household emergency - a flood, a leaking roof, an electrical fault, a broken boiler. When something like this happens, the householder is likely to turn to someone who says they can get the problem fixed quickly. But this person may not be reliable or safe in their working methods.
For this reason, Trading Standards advise doing some research now. Visit Buy With Confidence, draw up a list of members in your local area, and keep it somewhere you can lay your hands on it quickly.
If you need work doing then remember these tips from Trading Standards:
- Take time to get three quotes from reputable businesses you trust.
- Ask friends or family for recommendations.
- Visit Buy With Confidence to find a reliable trader, or call the service on 01392 383430.
- Decide who to use in your own time.
- Remember, if you agree to work in your home that will cost more than £42, you are legally entitled to a 14-day cooling-off period in which you can change your mind before the work starts. If you agree to the work starting within that time, you will be liable for any cost incurred by the business up until the point at which you cancel.