Consumer series with Gloria Hunniford. The story of how six thousand people across the north of England were deceived by 'the council tax conman'.
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We're investigating one of the most shocking areas of crime and it can hit us all right on our doorsteps.
From cold-calling con men to rip-off rogue traders, we're determined to fight back.
All over the UK, award-winning police and Trading Standards teams are tackling them
and you've not been shy about telling us your views.
Today, an audacious crook pays the price for conning almost £1 million out of West Yorkshire consumers.
I've been in business myself quite a while and I thought I could tell a shifty person.
I believed this man 100%.
A pair of rogue builders from Oxfordshire are brought to justice
after fleecing their victims out of £100,000.
I realised I'd been scammed for certain
the day we found the toilet unplumbed in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Plus the innovative online warning system that helps communities fight back against local crime.
I went to see if there were any new emails and there was one from the police,
warning about a young girl who would ring at the door.
The bell rang, I went downstairs and opened the door and there she was.
Hello and a huge thanks for all your emails. We really appreciate them.
Rosalind Willets from Leicestershire and David Williams from Lincolnshire
are concerned about doorstep crime.
David believes that setting up "no cold-calling zones" is a great way to tackle it.
I find it very reassuring to know
that the various law enforcement agencies are gradually catching up with the crooks who plague us all.
That's certainly true in Oxfordshire because in January 2012,
the conviction of local dodgy traders hit the headlines.
Take a good look at these two.
Trevor Bateman and David Merriman were rogue builders who defrauded thousands of pounds from people
and left a trail of damage and misery throughout the south-east.
But their activities have finally been brought to an end
and Martin Woodley of Oxfordshire Trading Standards is hopeful of seeing them get their comeuppance.
It's been a long, complex investigation
and it's taken us three years to get to this stage.
This is the finale now
and we'll see what sentence they get.
This hopefully can put a closure on this and put a lot of other victims' minds at rest.
But let's rewind to see how Bateman and Merriman targeted one victim,
68-year-old Jane Thomas,
who was doorstepped at her Oxfordshire home in June 2009.
The pair operated as A&S Builders,
not to be confused with any reputable company of a similar name.
They said they were from A&S Builders.
They were doing work in the district.
I said I needed the garden clearing and tidying up and would they like to give me a quote for it?
So he said "yes" and went off.
A couple of days later, A&S joint boss Trevor Bateman appeared at Jane's door
with a quote for £800 to clear her garden and repair the pathway.
'Trevor was very plausible, VERY plausible.'
He directed me and a friend of mine to go and look at some brickwork
that had been done on another house nearby, which we did and we liked the look of it,
so we thought everything was going to be all right.
The following Monday, all these blokes arrived and started to clear the garden.
As work was progressing nicely, Jane suggested another job for them.
I invited them to have a look at the bathroom which also needed quite a lot of attention
because a local plumber had left it in a bit of a mess,
so they gave me a quote for the bathroom as well.
Bateman quoted £2,500 to install a new bathroom which Jane agreed to.
Throughout, there were no written quotations.
Trevor Bateman said he needed to be paid in cash
and that request was generally on a Friday.
And he needed the cash to pay his workforce, he said.
And so I had to go to the bank on a Friday and withdraw the cash.
As well as his demands for money,
Bateman also tried to pressurise Jane into having other jobs done as well,
which thankfully, she refused, but things were already getting out of hand.
The problem with it all was that lots of different people arrived
at different times to do different things,
and I got very confused as to who was who and what was happening.
It's easy to see why poor Jane was feeling overwhelmed.
Martin Woodley of Oxfordshire Trading Standards led the case against Bateman and Merriman.
They were targeting the elderly and the vulnerable
and most of our victims were females living alone.
This was one of their trademarks.
They wanted the money on a Friday to pay the boys. They wouldn't give any leeway and they put the pressure on.
By now, this unwieldy gang of rogue builders had stripped Jane's bathroom, leaving it unusable,
but worse was still to come.
I realised I'd been scammed... for certain
the day we found the toilet unplumbed in the middle of the kitchen floor.
That is just shocking. We'll hear more about Bateman and Merriman's disastrous handiwork
and find out the results of their court appearance a little later on.
We love reading about your tips on tackling doorstep crime
and you've been very keen to tell us face to face your views on the whole subject.
The older generation were brought up to be trusting and it's difficult if somebody is pleasant to you
to think they have an ulterior motive. We should be more cautious.
Sometimes people feel embarrassed and ashamed about these doorstep crimes,
but they shouldn't feel embarrassed to go and report them.
When people come offering to tarmac the drive cheaply
or claiming that my roof needs some work and offering to do that,
I would tell them that I would insist on getting three quotes before commissioning anyone to do some work.
Here's another example of doorstep crime.
Hello, Gloria. I'm David Platt and I was one of these victims of this doorstep crime.
I want to be on your programme, so no-one else has to go through what I've been through.
It's been horrendous and it must stop.
We'll take a closer look at that story later on, but first, news of a wonderful online messaging service
that's helping police and residents share information and protect themselves against doorstep crime.
We've been to Hertfordshire to see it in action.
Love it or loathe it,
there's no doubt technology can be incredibly useful, as seen in the work of Hertfordshire Police.
The Online Watch Link, or OWL as it's known, is a website which anybody can sign up to
and enables the police to warn residents by email, phone, fax or text
about criminal activity before they can be targeted.
And OWL is proving a great success
as almost 100,000 people have joined the scheme across Hertfordshire, Staffordshire and North Wales
since it started in 2010.
But one person who wishes she'd signed up is 86-year-old Jolanda Wheeler.
On a late afternoon in January 2011, she was relaxing at home in St Albans.
There was a knock on the door and a young lady stood there.
She was holding her hand very carefully and said,
"I've just had an accident. I think I've broken my fingers.
"Could I come in? Could I put them in cold water?"
I was very sympathetic and said, "Of course, come on in."
I'm sure lots of us would be happy to help a young person in need and caring Jolanda was no exception.
But something didn't seem quite right.
She said, "I think I might have broken the wrist."
I should have seen that this wasn't broken, but I was so concerned about it.
As she tended to her injuries, Jolanda was too preoccupied
to take much notice of the man who was at the door with her.
The gentleman in the back said, "Can I use your toilet?"
I said, "It's just by the door," and off he went.
He came back again and this man said, "Right, I'd better go back to the car
"because Mother is waiting in there and I'll tell her what's happened." And he left.
And after a minute, she said, "I think that will do now."
I gave her a towel and she very carefully cleared it up and left.
The pair had only been in the house for minutes
and Jolanda thought nothing more of it until the following day.
It wasn't until the morning...
..when my handbag wasn't anywhere.
And I thought, "Oh, I came from shopping. I left it on the chair in the kitchen."
Sort of under the table.
It wasn't there either and that's when the penny dropped.
Jolanda had been the victim of a classic distraction burglary.
The girl had diverted her with the phoney injury
while her male accomplice had stolen Jolanda's handbag containing over £100.
I have learnt something and that is not to be quite so trusting
and certainly when I'm on my own in the house,
not to ask anybody in.
Disturbingly, it soon became clear that poor Jolanda was only one victim
in a series of distraction burglaries across the region.
Detective Sergeant Duncan Woodhams leads Operation Manhunt
which is a Hertfordshire Police initiative dealing specifically with doorstep crime.
It's fairly unusual to have a young female in distraction burglaries,
the fact that she was claiming to have hurt her wrist on each occasion,
the fact that she was picking on mainly female, elderly victims
and always committing these offences in the late afternoon or early evening.
To try to prevent these doorstepping thieves from striking again,
Duncan and his team turned to their secret weapon - the Online Watch Link.
It was a warning email from OWL after Jolanda's burglary
which helped prevent 74-year-old Lyn Parkyns from becoming another victim of the doorstepping duo.
As luck would have it, she had signed up to the scheme a matter of weeks before.
I had just taken my husband to the station
and when I got back, as I usually do,
I went into the study which is just by the front door
to see if there were any new emails, and there was one from the police,
warning about a young girl
who would ring at the door, say she'd hurt her wrist and could she run it under cold water,
but on no account to let her in.
I then went upstairs and about five minutes later, the bell rang.
I went downstairs, opened the door and there she was.
A youngish girl, dark hair, looked to me about 15 or 16, holding her wrist,
saying could she run it under cold water?
There's a bizarre coincidence, but thanks to the warning email,
Lyn knew just what to do.
I said something like, "We've all heard your story," or, "We know about you, goodbye," and shut the door.
I thought perhaps it was the wrong thing to do because I'd alerted her to the fact people knew about her.
Their confrontation with Lyn must have unsettled the pair
because the distraction burglaries ended as quickly as they had begun.
The victims had described the girl as being aged anything between 12 and 20,
but police were eventually able to identify her as 22-year-old Amy Cotterell,
a doorstepping criminal who had been arrested for similar offences in the Midlands,
which is where Duncan and his team caught up with her early in 2010.
Amy Cotterell was arrested by my team in Wolverhampton on the 20th of January.
She was brought back to Hertfordshire and interviewed over a couple of days.
She eventually admitted her part in the ten offences of distraction burglary.
Although she refused to name her accomplice in crime,
Amy Cotterell was charged with a series of distraction burglaries
and in December 2011, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
For Lyn Parkyns, her close shave with the dodgy doorsteppers
has proved the value of the Online Watch system and she can continue to be forewarned.
I think most people wouldn't let a stranger in,
but in this case, the girl looked so young and vulnerable
that a lot of people would take pity on her and would have let her in.
If I hadn't had that message, I would have done.
The OWL message received by Miss Parkyns prevented her becoming a victim to Amy Cotterell. I'm sure.
Because of the message she received, she could contact the right people quickly and inform us
of the doorstep crime that she was suffering.
Still to come, we hear about the West Yorkshire businessman
who scammed residents for almost £1 million.
To trust that person, I was very angry with myself. I should have made further enquiries.
That's what I should have done and that's what everybody else should do.
At this stage, it's time to return to Oxfordshire
to discover the fate of the rogues who made life so miserable for consumers there.
You'll remember that in June 2009, Jane Thomas had been doorstepped at her Oxfordshire home
by a company called A&S Builders, owned by Trevor Bateman and David Merriman.
She had agreed to pay them a total of £3,200 to clear her garden and install a new bathroom,
but instead, she had been left with an enormous mess and a huge problem.
One day, I came home only to find the toilet in the middle of the kitchen floor, unplumbed in.
And as it was the only toilet in the house, this was a huge inconvenience.
Too true! It was only when Jane's son became involved
that Bateman agreed to temporarily re-plumb the toilet back in,
but by then, Jane's bathroom had been left in disarray for weeks.
One of the cats jumped up and knocked the washbasin into the bath,
thereby chipping the bath and breaking the pedestal.
I had to go to the builders to get a new pedestal for the bathroom.
But arguably, Bateman and Merriman's most disgusting tactic
was to con their victims into paying for unnecessary labour,
meaning that Jane was now faced with an extortionate bill of £6,800.
That's twice what she had originally agreed.
They go in for a low price,
then create all this other work or suggest work
and then keep taking money until either the money has run out
or they cannot carry that work out any more because they haven't got the skills or the knowledge.
The work for both the bathroom and the garden altogether took about four weeks
and even then, it wasn't finished.
And it was a very stressful time
because I was worrying about the money, the fact that they weren't getting on with it
and the fact that there were all these odd people in and out of the house all the time.
Having reached the end of her tether, Jane rightly contacted Oxfordshire Trading Standards.
The fightback against these rip-off merchants was about to begin.
She actually came into the office with her daughter and she was very distressed.
I then went to court and I managed to obtain some warrants
and then 15 officers from Trading Standards, Oxfordshire Trading Standards,
went over at about four o'clock in the morning
to execute warrants at three addresses in Wiltshire.
We were helped by Wiltshire Police and we were able to look at many more potential victims
and that's when we started looking into other incidents.
Trevor Bateman and David Merriman were finally arrested in December 2010
and charged with unfair trading, money laundering and fraud,
totalling almost £100,000.
So let's whizz back to Oxford Crown Court in January 2012
where Martin and his Trading Standards team are waiting to see
if these rogue traders are going to be off the streets once and for all.
We've just had a terrific result.
Mr Merriman has received a three and a half years' prison sentence
and Mr Bateman four years.
It's a conclusion to the two and a half to three years of hard work
put in by all those involved in Trading Standards
and also it's a conclusion for the victims. They can put it behind them now.
For Jane Thomas, the experience has been upsetting,
but even a daily reminder of her run-in with Bateman and Merriman can't quite dampen her spirits.
It's an upside-down tile in the bath.
Whenever I sit in the bath, I look at it and I think, "I wish he hadn't done that."
I'm left with the eternal memory of Trevor Bateman and his shoddy workmanship.
That was a great result for Oxford Trading Standards and it must be an enormous relief to the victims.
I've had a letter from Mike Oliver in Swansea
who is justly proud of getting a "no cold-calling zone" set up
in his neck of the woods of Neath Port Talbot.
The scheme was approved in December 2011 and it's the first one of its kind in the area.
There are at least 450 residents who will benefit from the protection,
so keep up the good work, Mike, and thanks very much for the letter.
Now we have an extraordinary story waiting for us in West Yorkshire
where one doorstepping con man pocketed almost £1 million from consumers.
Fortunately, the law caught up with him soon enough.
The crook in question is Jack Darrell Henry.
His unusual doorstep crime involved persuading people their homes were in the wrong council tax band.
For a small cut, he promised to help them apply to the local councils to have their homes re-assigned,
enabling them to claw back money that they'd otherwise have to pay in council tax.
That's just what pensioner David Platt was hoping for when one of Henry's salesmen came knocking.
A gentleman came to the door and asked if he could come in
and talk to me about reducing my council tax.
He was a smart gentleman in his early 30s, well dressed, clean.
We sat in the lounge and talked for quite a while about different things.
He quite simply convinced me that he could save me some money and also get me some cash repayments.
The smooth-talking salesman said he worked for Council Tax Review
or CTR, which was owned by Jack Henry.
Of course, CTR should not be confused with companies of a similar name.
The salesman claimed that David was owed a substantial rebate of £4,000,
plus he could save at least £25 per month on his future council tax.
I've been in business myself quite a while and thought I could tell a... I use the words "a shifty person".
I believed this man 100%,
the way he talked to me,
particularly when he gave me his own mobile number, "Please contact me at any time you wish."
That convinced me even more that it was a genuine offer.
And for me to get £4,000 cash as a retired pensioner, it certainly makes you want to do it.
£4,000 in cash sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Well, you've guessed it - it was.
The salesman promised David his claim would be sent to the valuation office agency immediately,
but to take advantage of this tempting offer, he needed to make a payment to CTR there and then.
The salesman asked me if I would sign the agreement document
and would I pay £145,
which would be refundable if the case didn't succeed
and this case would be dealt with in between three and six months.
I had no hesitation whatsoever in giving him a cheque to the value of £145 payable to CTR.
Even though CTR would take up to 10% of the rebate as commission on top,
it still seemed like a good idea.
But sure enough, CTR weren't all they claimed to be.
By the time his salesman had doorstepped David,
Jack Henry was already well known to West Yorkshire Trading Standards.
There is nothing illegal in the concept of charging people
for doing a council tax review.
You can do it for free by yourself, but the concept is not illegal.
The problem with Jack Henry's business is the quality of the work undertaken.
In fact, although CTR did put thousands of claims for council tax rebates through the system,
most were so poorly filled out, they were rejected by the council immediately.
But Jack Henry lied to his customers, telling them that their claims had been accepted
and promising they would receive rebates within six to eight weeks.
By early December 2011, almost three months after he was doorstepped by their salesman,
David had forked out £310 in fees to CTR
and there was still no sign of his £4,000 council tax rebate.
As Christmas was approaching, I thought the time is up now,
I will ring CTR in a pleasant manner to ask them what the position is with the cash, etcetera.
I rang them and the gentleman was quite friendly and said,
"It has been passed, but it's been held up in Halifax.
"We need the go-ahead from them, but it should come through imminently."
At least David managed to get through to Jack Henry's sales team. Others were not so lucky.
Many customers chased him up, only to be fobbed off
or given various excuses why their work was making no progress.
Initial complaints were that they could not get through to Mr Henry,
that the six to eight-week period had been far exceeded and they could no longer make contact with him.
At this point, it's estimated that Jack Henry was turning over up to £900,000 a year
in payments from his mostly elderly and vulnerable customers,
but this con merchant's luck was about to run out.
After logging hundreds of complaints against CTR from disgruntled customers,
police and Trading Standards moved in.
Jack Darrell Henry was arrested on July 12th, 2010, by the West Yorkshire Police.
He was interviewed at Huddersfield Police Station by myself and a police officer.
The arrest related to a complaint made by a 93-year-old victim
who was being pursued for a further £95 by Mr Henry's sales team.
Ironically, Mr Henry had succeeded in re-banding her property.
After many months and repeated assurances from CTR that his claim had been accepted,
David Platt was still waiting to receive his £4,000 rebate.
It was only when he saw a headline about Jack Henry's arrest in his local paper that the penny dropped.
Initially, when I read the article in The Examiner, it was a shock.
I had believed in CTR all along.
I'd paid my money on demand, I got a telephone call saying I was passed.
I was really, really disappointed. I must admit that I thought I'd probably lost my money.
But I'm going to fight all I can to see if I can get something back.
Although poor David is still £310 out of pocket,
the case against Jack Henry involves around 5,000 victims,
all of whom paid fees to CTR for rebates they simply never received.
It all adds up to a staggering doorstep con trick worth hundreds of thousands of pounds,
but at least the rogue responsible might think twice before scamming anybody again.
In January 2012, Jack Henry received a nine-month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months,
plus 150 hours of unpaid community work.
The pursuit of compensation for Henry's victims is ongoing,
but one thing is for sure - David has learnt his lesson.
To trust that person, I was very angry with myself.
I should have made further enquiries, then perhaps arranged a future date to meet him again.
That's what I should have done and that's what everybody else should do.
If you are contacted out of the blue by a trader who offers you thousands in return for an up-front fee,
we advise you not to do business with them.
Don't allow them in the house. Even if they are offering a genuine service, we advise you
to shop around and get quotes from alternative suppliers.
If you need advice on any consumer matter, ring Consumer Direct.
I think you'll agree - a great, great result.
Now, before we go, enough time to read you a really positive email from Marion Lewis of Leicestershire.
The neighbourhood watch group she set up in 2002 is now ten years old.
In that time, they've been to see more than 2,000 households.
Marion says they've reduced the number of distraction burglaries
from 36 per year down to just one in the last 12 months.
I think that is terrific news, so thanks for getting in touch, Marion. Good stuff.
We're here to fight back against doorstep criminals
and we'd love to hear more of your stories about how you've stopped them ripping you off.
Find the details about how to get in touch with us at:
Thanks for being with us today
and clearly I hope you'll join me again next time.
Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd 2012
Gloria Hunniford finds out how viewers are fighting back against the doorstep conmen and rogue traders who rip people off in their own homes. In this episode, the story of how six thousand people across the north of England were deceived by 'the council tax conman'. Plus the online early-warning system that is helping the police and public fight back against doorstep crooks.