'Our struggle for justice after nightmare building jobs'
PUBLISHED: 06:30 31 August 2019
Customers described today their frustrating failures to get justice after building jobs went badly wrong, leaving them tens of thousands of pounds out-of-pocket.
Figures from Norfolk County Council's Trading Standards show it completes around 30 investigations each year and about a third of those probes lead to prosecutions.
The consumer watchdog has scored high profile convictions with the sentencing in March of rogue builder John Miller for four years.
But many reports are not investigated, while those that are can take years, leaving to calls from fraud victims for more legal protection.
Councillor Margaret Dewsbury said: "We work with businesses and traders to make sure they stay within the law and know that advice and guidance is often the most effective way to achieve compliance.
"Prosecution is a last resort and will be pursued where we have a realistic prospect of conviction."
When fraud victims complain to police, meanwhile, they are directed to reporting centre Action Fraud, but an investigation by The Times in August found most reports are never looked at.
As few as one in 50 fraud reports lead to a suspect being caught.
The Times also claimed that Action Fraud staff dismissed victims as "morons" and "screwballs".
Robert Bradford is the latest victim to have lost thousands after the collapse of Wymondham-based company Conservatories Etc.
The 67-year-old handed the firm £2,412 as a deposit for a new conservatory, but the company went into liquidation before building began.
An order form dated March 7, 2019 - the day after the company appointed liquidators - outlines the cost of the project with a rough pencil sketch of the conservatory.
Since the firm went into voluntary liquidation with £760,000 in debt, customers told this newspaper that the company owed them thousands of pounds.
Mr Bradford, of St Nicholas Close, Long Stratton, said: "After numerous phone calls to the official receiver, Citizens Advice, Office of Fair Trading, no win no fee solicitors and even the police I seem to have no chance of recovering my money."
Sam Elmhirst, meanwhile, tried to take her builders to court to recover £43,000 she paid them for a granny annexe which turned into a disaster.
The project at her home in Myrtle Avenue, Costessey, was left unfinished with a litany of problems by Hudson Garden Rooms.
The firm folded with almost £400,000 of debts when Ms Elmhirst tried to take court action last year.
"We have tried Trading Standards and all sorts but haven't had much luck," said Ms Elmhirst. "My hands are tied, there doesn't seem to be any justice."
Kelly and Debbie Alford, from Swaffham, were pursuing a building firm called Traditional Renovations Ltd when it was also put into liquidation with more than £100,000 of debts in April.
They said they had to spend £30,000 to put right the work carried out in their home, in London Street, after the firm left the project unfinished in September 2018.
Ms Alford, 46, said she has tried other avenues to claim her money back but has found doors shut in her face.
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She said she was "knocked down" after being told by Trading Standards that her complaint would not be investigated.
"We are very disappointed," she said. "It's really upsetting. We are upstanding citizens and there is nothing to protect ordinary people and it has to change."
Another customer of the firm, Imogen Ashwin, 58, from Ridlington, near North Walsham, also had her home left in a state after paying the company £75,000.
When Traditional Renovations went into liquidation it owed more than £100,000 but had only £1,300 of assets to pay people back.
Mrs Ashwin has been living in a caravan while work is being carried out on her home, which she said has cost her "thousands and thousands" on top of what she paid Traditional Renovation.
But she said the project is close to completion.
"I've never had any hopes of getting my money back," she said. "They went into liquidation and they owed so much money to so many people."
Meanwhile, Amanda Dale, of Woodward Road, Norwich, paid plumber Stuart Otter £2,300 in February 2017 for work in her bathroom.
But she and two other families complained about Mr Otter's work. He was convicted of fraud by misrepresentation earlier this year in relation to another job.
When the case went to court the 41-year old, of Moyes Road, near Oulton Broad evaded punishment after promising magistrates he would pay back the £1,475 he owed to one customer for work he never started.
Ms Dale, 41, said: "People have said to me all you can do is put it down to experience and unless you can take him to court there is nothing else you can do.
"But people lose money by trying to get justice through the court and it doesn't always happen. The whole thing is really frustrating."
Where to get help
Trading Standards gives consumers a remedy for breaches committed by companies and tradesmen.
Figures obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information request revealed 45 of 147 cases investigated by Norfolk Trading Standards since 2014 led to prosecution. The same number of cases ended with a written warning, while 21 led to no further action.
Trading Standards can be contacted through Citizens Advice on 03454 040506.
Victims of fraud are told by police to contact the national reporting service Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.
Cases that are likely to lead to the fraudster being caught are reviewed by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) and sent to police for investigation.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of fraud cases in Norfolk referred to NFIB increased over the years, with 3,133 cases reviewed in 2016 compared to 3,781 in 2017 and 4,284 last year.