Trading Standards are warning people to be on their guard against rogue doorstep traders targeting the vulnerable. 

Recent weeks have seen an increase in the number of people – often the elderly or vulnerable – who are being approached in their homes by rogue builders and sellers of mobility equipment. What can you do to protect yourself and your relatives?

The problem of rogue builders turning up on your doorstep and offering to do some work for a knockdown price isn’t new. But increasingly these gangs are ruthlessly targeting vulnerable people on the doorstep, sometimes fleecing them of tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. And once someone has been conned it’s likely they’ll be targeted again.

How rogue traders work

Although there are numerous different gangs working around the country, there are two typical scenarios that they use:

1. Offering to do roof repairs or driveway work at a knock-down price

It all sounds plausible enough. The rogue traders will say they’re working in the area and that they have some leftover materials and so can offer a discount. Once they start the work they’ll find other problems or simply inflate the price.

Most of these traders pass details of victims to each other, often by word of mouth. Other companies buy lists of addresses (those who’ve signed up to car mobility schemes or even, surprisingly, people who’ve opted out of the mailing and telephone preference scheme can be popular with some hard sell companies). 

2. Targeting elderly and disabled people by offering them mobility aids

These can range from ‘orthopaedic’ mattresses to bath lifts and high seated chairs. In some cases the aids aren’t needed, in other cases they’re vastly overpriced. 

Some traders give the impression that they have links to the local council social services department. They may also ask to see what medication someone is taking and ask for some personal information so they can give them better ‘advice’, which gives the impression they are legitimate.

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What are your rights?

By law, anyone who signs a contract in their home, whether or not they’ve invited the person there in the first place, has certain rights under consumer protection law. 

These include the right to cancel within seven days. If you signed a contract after a salesman or woman came to see you at home (or work) and the goods or service cost more than £35, you have the right to cancel the contract if you change your mind. 

You also have protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. These laws were introduced in 2008 to give consumers wide-ranging protection from aggressive or misleading traders. The problem is that if you don’t have anything in writing and you don’t have contact details for the company, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enforce this law. 

You might find it’s more effective to ban cold callers in the first place. Trading Standards and the police work together in many areas to enable people to set up ‘no cold calling zones’. It’s not something you have the automatic right to do – the street or area normally has to have a high proportion of older or vulnerable people. 

Contact your parish council to find out more about setting up a no cold calling zone in your area. Bear in mind, however, that even if you have the backing of your council and other residents, the zones have no legal status and it would not be illegal for traders to call at homes that don’t display a door sticker.

What to look out for

The techniques used by the rogue traders vary but typically they invest a lot of time and effort in gaining the trust of someone. With most elderly people wanting to remain independent as long as they can and many family members often living some distance away, it can be hard to spot a problem.

If you have elderly parents or relatives you’re worried about, ask if there have been any visitors calling and offering to do work or to sell mobility aids.

If your relative has been targeted once, even if it was only for a modest amount of money, the odds are that they will be targeted again by another trader. Some elderly people have been defrauded of their entire life savings by a number of different rogue traders.

If your relative needs carers, ask if they have found anything unusual. In some local authorities – but not all – Trading Standards work closely with adult services departments and carers are trained to be on the lookout for potential problems.

What can banks do?

Banks say they can’t stop someone from spending their money even if they seem to be spending it in an unusual way. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do. 

Banks can report suspicious transactions. If a bank cashier sees a suspicious transaction they can (and do) check that all is OK. In some circumstances they can contact the police or Trading Standards.

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What should you do if you or a relative has been ripped off?

If you think you or someone you know has been targeted, don’t suffer in silence.

  • Contact Trading Standards or your local police as soon as you can. 
  • Speak to a family member, trusted neighbour or friend. 
  • Write down what happened so you have it clear in your mind when you’re asked for more information. 
  • Report it to Action Fraud either online or by calling 0300 123 2040. 
  • If a scam has left you or a relative struggling financially, contact Citizens Advice to help you find a way forward. You can speak to an adviser through its national phone service Adviceline, on 03444 111 444, which is available from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.

Remember that falling victim to a rogue trader can have a huge emotional impact. Victims often feel embarrassed and don’t want to tell people what’s happened, even though they are not to blame.

If you or your relative needs to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, contact Victim Support either online or via their support line on 0808 1689111, or Think Jessica, a charity committed to protecting older people from fraud and scams. You can also contact The Samaritans at any time of the day or night on 116 123.

Read about other kinds of scam in our guide Types of scam and how to avoid them.