At the first of a regular series of round table discussions with trustmark, representatives from the consumer protection sector had their say on how the initiative could benefit the most vulnerable - and we were there to listen in.

Bringing a tradesperson into your house is an act of trust that many of us find difficult - particularly the more vulnerable members of society. Disabled and older people are often targeted by rogue traders and could particularly benefit from the Trustmark scheme. But what are the issues that face these particular groups? And how can Trustmark ensure that its message gets through? A round table discussion in London last month, attended by representatives from some of the UK's most influential charities and consumer watchdogs, attempted to provide some answers to these questions, and marked the start of an ongoing dialogue between TrustMark and these groups.

Photograph by Julian Anderson

Photograph by Julian Anderson

What groups do you think are particularly vulnerable to rogue traders?

GJ: I think we need to distinguish between rogue traders - the real criminals - and shoddy workmanship - genuine traders who just aren't very good. Our experience is that old people are targeted by rogue traders. Rogue traders know it's an older person's house due to its state of repair and maintenance. This is partly because as you get older you lose your networks and don't know somebody who can come in and mend your windows, which means that you just don't do it. At the same time older people can also be gullible. The main worry when you get older is that you want to remain independent and your home is a very important part of this.

HF: There are whole rafts of society that are vulnerable to rogue traders; the vulnerable are just more vulnerable. One of the difficulties is that when people do have a problem they feel slightly nervous about everything. As a result they don't want to admit that they're vulnerable and when they're ripped off they don't admit it. So you get this band of secrecy when people are scared to admit they've made a mistake. It's a general problem, but probably more for someone who is disadvantaged.

Vulnerability neglect and isolation – this is what rogue traders pick up on

SM: Vulnerability, neglect and isolation - this is what rogue traders pick up on. People will look at funerals and target the person who is left. They will keep checking up on them until they seem fed up and isolated - the garden might be starting to get overgrown, for example - and then they will use tricks like throwing slates on the ground outside the house to convince them that they need their roof doing.

SH: I've had a problem with a builder in the past, I think because I was obviously a young female who hadn't had any building work done before. He was a friend's recommendation and his work was good, but he saw that I had some money to spend and tried to get the most out of me. He was just taking forever to do the job and I had to tell him I would get someone else in to finish the job. I stupidly didn't get any quotes, which is what I tell other people to do.

How do you deal with people who have been ripped off?

SH: We like to look at it from the point of view of preparation so you don't get into that situation in the first place. We advise people to do their research, find out all the facts and figures - it's particularly important if you're old and disabled that you feel you can ask the right questions. We also have a factsheet if you have to make a complaint.

Huge numbers of operators in this sector are not limited companies so they're not readily traceable

SM: One of the most difficult things can be finding the person when it's all gone wrong. Huge numbers of operators in this sector are not limited companies so they're not readily traceable. So problem one is tracing people; then you will need to talk about reporting them to trading standards or to the police.

If you do manage to find the person you've got to look at how you can show what is wrong. Because of the nature of building work it can be expensive, time-consuming and difficult to get someone to come along and assess this.

IL: We've done a survey that suggests only 7% of tradespeople are in associations - about 150,000 - and we reckon there's another 400,000 legitimate businesses, that pay tax, VAT and so on. We think that there are another 900,000 tradespeople just operating in the grey or black economy. That's a real problem for traceability because they'll be the ones putting things through the door, and then they disappear overnight.

Photograph by Julian Anderson

Photograph by Julian Anderson

I think most people do have access to the internet but the whole planet is not IT literate

What is the best way to communicate the benefits of using a TrustMark registered tradesperson with vulnerable groups?

IL: We have taken the view that glitzy, glossy, high-profile campaigns are not always the way to communicate with consumers. We've done that, but much of the strategy we're pursuing now is done at a local level. A total of 80% of people who pick a trader will do so by word of mouth, through local recommendations or through their parish magazines or local newspapers, so we're focusing a lot of our communications through these channels. We've decided that the website is where people will go to find a trustworthy tradesman, but one of my worries is that vulnerable and disabled groups may not have access to the internet and may not be able to use that search facility.

SH: At the Disabled Living Foundation we operate a website and a phone line and are finding that increasing numbers of older people are going online. The number of hits on our website is going up all the time, but at the same time we still get a lot of phone calls. One place in which we have done a lot of marketing is in GP surgeries - a lot of older and disabled people will visit their doctors - and also in libraries. Something that worked really well was changing our posters so that rather than asking whether specialist equipment will help you we now ask whether you or anyone you know could benefit from this. We've found a lot of people will look at the poster and say "that will help my mother" and get in touch with us.

HF: My experience of a lot of people whose hearing varies is that they are scared of a lot of things so they wouldn't go on the internet themselves, but might get their friends to do it for them. I think most people do have access to the internet but the whole planet is not IT literate.

GJ: You shouldn't underestimate the influence of organisations like Age Concern. We communicate with a large number of people and they trust us. Some Age Concerns keep local lists of things like recommended tradespeople and this is something that could work in TrustMark's favour.

IL: There are two sides to what we're doing. Yes we have to convince the trade to get involved, back this scheme and kick out the cowboys. But we've also got to convince the consumer that they shouldn't act as cowboys either, because the cowboy consumer is as much an issue as the cowboy trader - people who trade in cash, try to avoid VAT and go for the cheapest option. It's about consumer education. 


TrustMark, email:

Citizens Advice

Age Concern, tel: 020 8765 7200

Disabled Living Foundation, tel: 020 7289 6111

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, tel: 01844 348100