FEATURE: Cutting fraud on our doorsteps

Gazette reporter Laura Connor spent the afternoon out with Ripon police to see what the city’s force is doing to clamp down unwanted door step callers.

Operation Liberal may not sound like a multi-agency, nationwide crackdown on fraudsters conning vulnerable people out of thousands of pounds every year.

Ripon police officers out making routine enquiries in the city.

Ripon police officers out making routine enquiries in the city.

But for Ripon police, the innocuously named initiative has become a top priority.

In a week of action, from April 22-26, led by Trading Standards and Operation Liberal – the national intelligence unit for distraction burglary and travelling crime – Ripon police pounded the streets to hunt down rogue traders and pushy doorstep sellers who use fraud to con vulnerable people into paying for unnecessary or vastly overpriced work to their homes.

“It affects local traders and legitimate local businesses as well as the people who are being conned out of money,” says Sgt Andrew Tiffany, of North Yorkshire Police, as we travel to Riverside Meadows caravan park in Ripon on the afternoon of Thursday, April 25, to warn residents about cold-callers and see if they had been targeted by rogue traders on the site.

“One trader told me he had been working in the construction industry for 20-odd years and he was delighted we are doing this because it is good for their trade,” says Sgt Tiffany.

PCSO Daniel Arthur nods in agreement.

“Most traders are happy we’re are doing this because it means they can be highlighted as legitimate traders, but sometimes they can think we are accusing them.”

During my afternoon out with Ripon police, officers were advising residents against dodgy dealers and spot-checking any traders at work in the area. Homeowners and construction workers were more than happy to give Sgt Tiffany and PCSO Arthur any details and chat about their businesses.

“In every area of the country there will be dodgy traders but people won’t report it because they won’t know they are being ripped off on price,” PCSO Arthur tells me.

Describing how they vet legitimate traders working the the area, PCSO Arthur shows me the questionnaire they present to homeowners having work done and the company they have employed, which asks if the homeowner was given a quotation, paperwork and a cancellation policy, and if they were cold-called.

“Rogue traders are essentially committing fraud by false representation,” he says.

The Ripon police officers have been handing out stickers for residents to put in their windows, making cold-calling a crime.

“When local rogue traders are active and fleecing people out of a lot of money, by putting these stickers up from Trading Standards in your window, it creates an offence for anyone to cold-call and anyone who calls unannounced could face prosecution,” says Sgt Tiffany.

Officers at Ripon are now working towards setting up no cold-calling zones in Ripon, similar to a zone established in a village near Knaresborough to stop rogue traders before they have even started work on a property.

But police are still concerned about the vulnerability of people being targeted, who may not feel able to say no to traders they are unsure about.

“I was talking to an old lady this morning who was persuaded into having an appointment and have some work done because she is too polite and too scared to say no when these people call,” says Sgt Tiffany.

Ruth Andrews, head of fraud and financial investigations at North Yorkshire County Council’s (NYCC) Trading Standards, which is working in partnership with the police to tackle doorstep crime, says victims are “invariably very elderly and may have dementia” and are specifically targeted, often repeatedly, by offenders.

“Our activities this week once again demonstrate our commitment to working with partners to ensure doorstep offenders are fully aware that their behaviour will not be tolerated in North Yorkshire and that we will use all available enforcement tools to deal with their offending,” Mrs Andrews says.

“They should also be aware that this is not just a one-off event and that our commitment remains throughout the year. We continue to do all we can to safeguard vulnerable residents against the frauds and scams perpetrated by these criminals.”

Mrs Andrews adds that only 28 per cent of doorstep crimes are reported because victims are “quite often embarrassed or have mental health issues”.

“Offenders are choosing their victims specifically and then they think they are more likely to get away with it. But our message to offenders is that they shouldn’t get complacent. They might think an elderly person or someone with dementia would not be able to give reliable evidence but there are ways around it, such as consulting friends or family.”

But Mrs Andrew maintains it is unrealistic to make Ripon a cold-calling zone.

“The problem we have got is that we are facing the same cuts as the police and we have to prioritise areas that need extra protection. These initiatives only work if the community cares and will give their neighbours the support they need.

“We could not make North Yorkshire a cold-calling zone. It would fail.”

Although during my afternoon out on the beat with Ripon police no arrests were made, it was made clear to me that many residents in the area are completely unaware of the potential problems with answering cold-calls, either on the phone or at the door.

And by preventing devastating situations which inspired the week of action – a financial investigation by North Yorkshire Trading Standards led to the arrests of six rogue traders ordered to repay £413,948.35 after conning elderly residents across the country out of £1m – rogue traders will not be able to rest easy in Ripon, whether it is selected as a cold-calling zone or not.

– As part of the city operation, three men, aged 20, 29 and 35, were arrested in Ripon on Monday, April 22, on suspicion of offences linked to work being carried out on homes in the city.

lIf you think a rogue trader is at the door, call the police on 999. People should report uninvited doorstep callers to Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 08454 040506. Anyone with information that could lead to the arrest of any distraction burglar or rogue trader should ring North Yorkshire Police on 101. If you want to remain anonymous, call the charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.