A builder had relieved them of £21,000 in advance payments and left them having to finance a further outlay of £30,000 to rectify shoddy low quality and incomplete work.
Almost a year later despite reporting the cowboy trader to Portsmouth trading standards for absconding with their money, they are still waiting to learn what action is being taken to put a stop to his rogue practices.
Left distressed and frustrated, they were typical of the many exasperated readers who routinely contact Streetwise to complain they have been victims of fraud and online scams, but due to underfunded and run-down key public services there’s nothing they can do about it.
In a landmark but familiar multiple case scenario, a Streetwise investigation uncovered victims of Elegant Construction (not to be confused with companies of a similar name) run by former convicted fraudster and banned company director John Lepp. They got in touch to reveal they’d been conned out of more than half a million pounds in advance payments for incomplete cowboy building work.
Fourteen complainants from across the south all reported him to trading standards and the police after being left in the lurch facing further bills of many thousands of pounds for repairs to their tumbledown homes to comply with building regulations.
Although they’d assembled enough evidence to warrant investigating and foreclosing on his shady business practices, no action had been taken.
A frustrated and angry spokesperson for the victims, Tatiana Dent, alerted Trading Standards South East, which represents 11 local councils, and the police via Action Fraud.
She says she hit a wall of bureaucracy and ended up being sent around in circles. Initially told to contact Citizens’ Advice, her enquiries weren’t answered. and left with nowhere to turn apart from hanging on to an unanswered trading standards phone line.
Action Fraud turned out to be a waste of space when incredibly no-one she spoke to was prepared to accept that conning people out of money amounted to a criminal offence.
Police figures show that between 2019 and last year more than 800,000 people reported being a victim of fraud with £2.3bn finding its way into criminal hands.
Over the last five years Streetwise has been inundated with stories of people hitting a wall of unaccountability when they’ve reported the theft of their money. Travel companies failing to provide refunds, holiday home and investment scams, rogue landlords refusing to return deposits, fake letting agents, insurance scams, phishing outfits, bank fraud, sale of unroadworthy used cars, to name but a few.
All the victims were defrauded because enforcement of the law designed to stop them from being ripped off with impunity had fallen away and civil law remedies were either impossible or inappropriate.
A Chartered Trading Standards Institute trade body workforce survey disclosed trading standards offices had been at the forefront of service cuts since 2010. Despite responsible for enforcing over 250 pieces of legislation the survey confirmed 43 per cent of services were unable to deal with consumer detriment in their area, with the average per-head spend on consumer protection dropping to a meagre £1.87.
Councils had responded differently to the crippling budget cuts by either concealing their impact by declining to respond to the national survey, savage staff cuts, doing a little of everything to save money, or totally ceasing taking regulatory action in specific areas of enforcement policy.
Streetwise submitted a freedom of information request to Hampshire and Portsmouth councils. We asked them to reveal the number of prosecutions for the violation of the criminal law and deceptive trading practices, together with the number of complaints they’d received from all sources from 2015/6 to 2020.
Hampshire confirmed they’d received 5,784 complaints but had initiated only 15 prosecutions during the same period. Portsmouth figures were 726 complaints leading to 11 prosecutions.
Although we included a caveat that reported issues included civil as well as criminal infringements, the figures were a stark endorsement that councils facing extreme budgetary pressures have incrementally and almost invisibly destroyed the involvement and capacity of trading standards to take appropriate action to police rogue traders.
Staff numbers had fallen by 50 per cent in many authorities and in some cases even higher as a direct result of slashed budgets. Skilled staff had been replaced by unqualified officers primarily to promote paid for business advice to traders and were not trained to undertake investigative or enforcement activities.
CTSI chief executive John Herriman didn’t mince his words, confirming they were acutely aware of the issues facing local authority trading standards services.
He said: ‘Our specific concern is that consumers have nowhere to go to resolve the issues they may face with goods or services they have purchased resulting in exposure to significant detriment.
‘They can help local consumers when they need to report issues, but this is becoming increasingly difficult with continued budget cuts.
‘However, there are real opportunities to protect consumers and help businesses to support the local economy but this needs a local trading standards capacity that is currently at risk of being depleted to a level which it cannot fulfil both these crucial tasks and consumers will undoubtedly suffer as a result.’
Portsmouth City trading standards assured us they consider all complaints based on the quality of the evidence and whether prosecutions are in the public interest. They claimed scores of issues were resolved without prosecution but did not elaborate by providing examples.
Cabinet member for community safety and environment Dave Ashmore said: ‘Our trading standards team works hard to encourage businesses to use the correct practices and to crack down on any illegal behaviour. Working with a budget that has been streamlined in recent years, they achieve results that mean local people can be confident that their rights will be protected, and issues will be resolved in the correct way.’
Hampshire county Council were equally circumspect. Their spokesperson told us their depleted trading standards’ resources had to be aimed on cases that presented the greatest possible risk from harm to residents’ safety or economic detriment.
‘The type of concerns we receive fall into a number of categories from minor concerns that can be resolved in a straightforward manner by trading standards offering a recommendation, to more serious concerns where legal action must be taken by trading standards or other appropriate agency such as Environmental health or the police. Trading standards officers make every effort to inform customers which agency they should be contacting. The service will always seek to signpost residents to further information.’
Despite these reassurances, we felt the last word should go to a quintessential Streetwise distressed complainant Marie Reagan, from Rowlands Castle.
She told us she’d been conned into parting with a £3,552 up front deposit by a Havant company for a garden revamp which left her finances in tatters and a cowboy landscape disaster.
Marie has spent weeks campaigning to get help from Hampshire trading standards, the police, her MP and government departments but found herself banging her head against a brick wall.
She said: ‘I feel trading standards did nothing to support me. I was told it was a civil matter. Trading standards offices had been cut to the bone and an officer said they were pretty much on the verge of closing and there’d be no help at all next year.
‘As for the police, when I finally got through to a call handler, I was put on hold for ten minutes, then a lady screamed at me it was only a civil case and cut me off.
‘The police finally agreed it was a criminal matter, so I sent a report to the Home Office and emailed my MP Flick Drummond. I’m copying it to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel as she is supposed to oversee the police, but for some inexplicable reason the shocking truth is “complain about the theft of your money and the chances are it’ll end up filed the bin”.’