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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 11:19 GMT
Cowboy tradesmen caught in sting
A drain engineer wears a gas mask as part of an elaborate pretence that he was using dangerous chemicals in a video image released by Surrey County Council Trading Standards officers
Some tradesmen alarmed investigators
A six-month Trading Standards inquiry into plumbers and engineers uncovered widespread ripping-off of clients.

Officers in Surrey set up a 'house of horrors' style sting, inviting 44 tradesmen to carry out simple repairs while being secretly filmed.

Nearly one in four carried out substandard or even dangerous work and many strung out the job for extra pay.

One tradesman used a lighter to search for a gas leak and a plumber appeared to urinate in a water tank.

Ten traders now face criminal prosecution as a result of the investigation.

Picked at random, washing machine repairers, drainage specialists, boiler fitters and aerial technicians visited the ordinary looking house in a suburban street.

A Trading Standards officer posed as the homeowner, while colleagues observed the tradesmen on close circuit TV from a hi-tech control room.

Fancy dress

Other excesses seen by the officers included a drain specialist who donned fancy dress to deal with a blockage.

A trading standards officer monitors the workmen
Traders were monitored by secret cameras
Less dramatically, one tradesman allegedly falsely claimed to be a member of CORGI and the Institute of Plumbing.

Another case involved a boiler engineer spending five hours to complete a small repair, then charging four times more than some of the other tradesmen called.

"If you didn't have the film evidence, you wouldn't actually believe what you were seeing," said Trading Standards officer Peter Denard.

Trading Standards hailed the investigation and said five people were to receive advice, in addition to the 10 being prosecuted.

Your comments:

This is a brilliant idea...could it be extended to include garages, factories, shops and offices ,etc!
Len Williams, Brighton

Will the trading standards people be promoting the names of the good trades-people they found, or is this just an expensive job justifying stunt at the tax payers expense.
Tony, West Yorks England

Its about time they were punished. We had a loft extension put in, the quote was for 3 months, it took over a year. The quality of work was appalling.

I am a real engineer, i.e. with a degree and membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineer. It distresses me somewhat to see these cowboys even using the word engineer to describe themselves. Imagine if they were calling themselves Doctors and advising people on health issues. It is time engineers were given the same social status as doctors, after all, they bring technology from the lab into our everyday lives, not bodge your plumbing.
Chris Cowdery, Huntingdon, UK

We hired a cowboy plasterer who insisted on being paid by the day - not the price of the job. After becoming suspicious he was wasting time, I decided to work from home, only to realise he had been snooping around the house and leaving the job for hours off at a time. We ended up offering him a cash incentive to finish on the day he had originally estimated, as it became clear he was dragging the job on to get more money. On the last day, when he didn't turn up, we began trying to clear up the mess he had made, only for him to show, put in a couple of hours, then spent the next four hours sitting drinking tea waiting for his mate to show and pick him up! At this point we let him stay as we were too scared to insist he leave. He left some tools in our garden, could not be contacted to come and remove them, but one day some weeks later he turned up with no notice, broke into our garden and took them back. When my neighbour saw him climbing over the garden gate, he thought we were being burgled. He was a recommendation from someone, which we had originally thought was the safest way to find a tradesman.
Lisa, London

Don't put up with poor service and workmanship; take out a Small Claims. At this time, I am in dispute with 2 local firms and intend to take them to court. One firm fitted a kitchen with a tap that is too small and keeps flooding the countertop. I am going to sue for a firm to put right their shoddy design. Another firm has overcharged on repairing my central heating system. They are also in line for a court appearance. Invite the press to the court: small claims are now open. Go for it.
Clive C, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

I was once the victim of a ruthless "Cowboy" tradesman. My boiler broke down some few months ago, so I called an engineer. He only said that the PCB board (Printed Circuit Board) of the boiler was "dead" and would cost 200! I'm no boiler engineer but a qualified electrician and I knew very well it wasn't the board. Someone needs to stamp out these fakes.
Jamak Touking, SE London

I hope that this sting is shown on television, however I also hope that footage is also shown of the professional tradesmen who do a good and honest job. As an honest plumber myself I do find it disheartening that there is never positive feedback about good work. I often think that there should be a programme along the lines of "Customers From Hell" as there are certainly plenty of people out there who don't pay for work or blame previous house damage on the tradesmen to try and get it done right for free. I am not against showing up the crooks but it must be done fairly and I would like to see tougher government legislation for the trades industry, e.g. before you can work for money on someone's house you need to be qualified which currently for many trades is not the case.
John, Cardiff

A major problem with these cowboys is that, the more vulnerable a householder seems, the easier a target they are. Older people, particularly those who are frail or who live alone, are much less likely to argue the toss over an unreasonable bill or to question the work that 'needs' to be done. Codes of practice must be enforceable and enforced so that everyone who needs plumbing or central heating work done can be confident that they are getting a good, safe job done at a reasonable price.
Ben Harding, London, UK

Here is one painful lesson learned from experience that I would like to pass on to others. If your plumber charges you for a metre length of copper piping for a job that requires only six inches of copper piping, make sure that at the end of the job he does not take away the remaining 33 inches. Copper piping is not cheap. It is your piping, not his; you have paid for it so you should keep it.
Rachel Mawhood, Greenwich, London, UK

When our washer broke, an engineer came out for free and advised us that it would need a new motor at 150 plus 50 to fit it i.e. nearly the cost of a new washer in itself. I got a new motor for 70 + VAT and fitted it myself in 10 mins. It wasn't the cost of the labour that bothered me but doubling the price of the motor was a bit cheeky!
JP, Rochdale, England

I regard myself as a honest tradesman. There are far more rogue customers out there who have no intention of paying for the work they have done. They are effectively trying to steal my service. As a general rule the richer they are the less they pay. Honest tradesmen also need protecting.
Stuart Allan, Brighton

The most disturbing thing regarding 'stings' like these is that they can be set up in any town anywhere in the country and come up with the same results, cowboys ripping off the public!.
A Spencer, Halifax, England

I recently fitted a 54 piece for which I was quoted 290 by a local plumber. It wasn't going to be labour costs either, it took 20 minutes. It was also going to take him 3 days to fit as he had to fetch the piece. I offered to go and pick it up for him, to which "Ah, no mate, they only sell to the trade, won't deal with members of the public", blah, blah. I found his supplier and they were more than happy to sell me the part. Mate?
Alex, Sawbridgeworth, Herts

Included in a whole catalogue of incompetence, my plumber installed a Jacuzzi which leaked into a live electrical socket that he had installed ... but also failed to earth the bath!! Worse still, he admitted his errors in court but the Dutch judge didn't support my claim, simply stating that "it's just one of those things life throws at you - you could be knocked down by a bus tomorrow". So ... first the victim of rogue Dutch tradesmen, then a victim of a rogue Dutch legal system! I wish we had Trading Standards people over here!!
Paul, Lelystad, The Netherlands

Add gardeners to your list. We employed two. The first tried to shorten/narrow our garden to save on fence panels. After we made a part payment for materials he decided not to turn up. His girlfriend claimed he spends it on booze. We then got a 2nd gardener who laid a patio, but stepped all over it, resulting in him having to come back 3 times to fix it. We held some money back but on the 4th occasion he insisted we paid him in full. We told him where to go, he didn't come back.
Sean L, Chadwell Heath, UK

I have been the victim of appalling workmanship covering plumbing, electrical work and joinery. I wonder how many of those working on my house have served apprenticeships or attended some sort of structured training? Seems that anyone can set themselves up in this field.

I had really bad fireplace fitters to fit a new marble fireplace and gas fire. They were recommended by the retailer who made the fireplace, were CORGI registered and I checked their registration but that didn't stop them causing a gas leak and leaving me without heating and hot water, having tried for hours to find the leak. They left my house at 10.45 in the evening by which time I just wanted them to go. My usual gas fitter came in the next day and found the gas leak in less than 10 minutes. In addition to his call out charge I had to have part of a wall re-plastered as they had insisted the leak was behind the partition, which it was not. I live in hope that the fireplace is correctly installed.
Sandie Harding, Sidcup, UK

I must admit that I am one of the lucky ones. I was recommended a carpenter who is excellent by a friend. The carpenter has a list of other tradesmen who are honest and give a good job for a fair price. Whenever I need work done, I just ring him up and he gives me a name and a phone number. The plumber even came out when I had a leak in my heating (which was a loose nut) and didn't charge me a penny!! Maybe this would be a good idea for other honest tradesmen, they must hear from customers or building sites they work on who has a good reputation in their area. They could then pass work to each other, thereby increasing there own business and helping to ensure their customers get a good service. I would never employ a tradesmen who wasn't recommended by my carpenter.
Lelsey, Milton Keynes

Thirty years ago I was a mechanic working for a local (then) Austin Morris dealership. Our boss - although a bit of an Arthur Daly - ensured we were highly skilled and properly trained. There were only five of us in the workshop but all of us had completed an apprenticeship, were City & Guilds qualified to technician standard and regularly attended factory training courses to the point that we were all registered with the factory as Austin/Morris technicians. We were all youngsters in our early 20's then - and we were good. Very good. We took great pride in the quality of our workmanship. It was considered a disgrace to get a customer come back with the same fault. Consequently, the garage we worked at had many long standing, satisfied customers and more work than we could cope with. Good tradesmen do not need to rip off anybody. Charge a proper rate for the job, certainly - but a skilled tradesman will do a proper job in less time than a non-skilled 'tradesman' anyway, so the charges should not be exorbitant. It used to really annoy us that the unskilled or criminally minded could undermine our trade, our worth and the training we had undergone. So well done, Trading Standards. Long may such actions continue. I'm sure all properly trained and properly qualified tradesmen will support anything that clears out the cowboys.
Peter, Welwyn Garden City, England

My solution. Visit the local adult education centre and enrol on the course of your choice. It will save you 1,000's. I've done DiY Motor Mechanics and regularly service my own car and motorbike; also done home maintenance course covering the basics re: tap replacement/repair. More recently completed a French polishing/ wood staining course. Better than watching TV!
Alan Pearce, Gt Bentley, England.

As first time buyers, who's only option to get a house was to buy one that needs extensive upgrading and with very little money to spend on it, we are only to aware of the problems that can be found trying to get good, honest tradesman at a fair and cheapish price. We have been caught out a couple of times, but so far, we have been lucky and occasionally found really helpful people, like out plumbers that put in our central heating. They left us all the excess copper pipes, joins, insulation and even gave up one of their lunch breaks to show us how to bend pipes, use compression fittings and solder together stuff. This has saved us hundreds of pounds as we have now done all the plumbing in our tiny kitchen/bathroom ourselves. So you can find nice guys..
Caroline, Hampshire, England

I had to get by boiler replaced. I opted to go for 3 separate quotes. The worst stated that it was a 5 day job and that I would have to replace all of the pipe work and the storage tank. The company that finally got the job said they would do the work in half a day with minimal disruption. They arrived on time and did a first class job. The message: there are many rogues, but there are also good guys. Be vigilant and always get more than one detailed quote.
Peter Rubie, Bracknell, UK

I agree with many of our contributors, we are shown the cowboys, well and good, is makes good TV and headlines. But there are thousands of good, honest tradesmen out there. I have had 15 houses of which the most modern was 1925 over the past 40 years which has meant a lot of dealings with tradesmen. Less than 5% of whom I consider did shoddy work or ripped me off. Shame the bad ones by all means but don't make we customers think we will always be ripped off there are far more 'white hatted cowboys' out there than bandits.
B Parkin, N. Yorks

Since my divorce, I've been a victim of unscrupulous rogue tradesmen on a number of occasions. Fed up with it, I brought myself a Readers Digest DIY manual and now do most of the repairs myself. There are some things I still wouldn't tackle but most things I will take on. I've re-plastered a wall, replaced a central heating pump and even installed an outside tap and electrical socket. DIY is much easier than I was lead to believe it was! If I'm not sure what the problem is, I get a few tradesmen in to give me a quote, ask them what the problem is and then fix it myself.
Sara, Reading, Berkshire

The issue of licensing the UK engineering profession should be ended by the government introducing a "professional engineering bill" to cover the statutory protection of title and right to practise as professional engineers or professional engineering technicians. This could be enforced by the UK Engineering Council against individuals who practise engineering without being licensed or offer engineering services without holding a "certificate of authorisation", similar to the legal enforcement lines of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). Only this will end the abuse of the word "engineer" and raise the status of all professional engineers and professional engineering technicians to that of doctors, lawyers, solicitors, architects and accountants. Otherwise, the abuse of the word "engineer" will sadly continue to be used by the cowboys.

The BBC's Nicola Carslaw
"The advice is to use a trader recommended to you"

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