Effective consumer protection using the Internet:
Have County Councils failed?
One of the roles of County Councils is Trading Standards - which roughly translated means protection of the public from rogue traders, often in the building or car servicing industries. Yet cowboy builders and plumbers abound, car servicing is a minefield, shady car boot sales contain all manner of stolen goods (ask any police officer) and very little seems to be done. How many prosecutions result each year? A handful, where there ought to be many thousand - especially of garages that do not do their job properly. A sea change is long overdue. Either Trading Standards departments need to be made effective under existing arrangements or they need a change of management.
There should surely be locally run Internet sites across the country where we can post comments about poor goods and services. Obviously it cannot include favourable comments - because those could be faked. If you are sure of your ground, if you are prepared to put your name to what you say, it could prove a valuable local use of the web - for discussing cowboy builders, plumbers, etc.
One site from the USA is http://www.complaints.com. This is sometimes loaded with trivia (people objecting to the price of a chocolate cookie) yet the idea could become a powerful part of consumer protection. For this to happen, sites need to be centred locally and restricted largely to comments on the core industries where shady practices abound and where wads of cash change hands - building, plumbing, car repairs, and including some 'professions' such as dentistry where a lot of money is made because people feel uneasy about questioning charges. Linked sites in the USA that seem too disorganised and insufficiently focused on local areas are rip off report and the bad business bureau. Are there examples of locally organised sites in the UK that concentrate on the real problem areas?
One UK site that has a lot of good information about cars is http://www.honestjohn.co.uk. It includes a 'good garages' directory but this is based on recommendations that could be falsified. It would be a far more powerful consumer tool if authenticated cases of 'rip-offs' could be posted. At the moment it comprises merely a small list of garages that one or two people have said they found satisfactory - and many people can feel satisfied even when they have been ripped off if the sales patter is good enough!
However, for inside information on the motor trade it is one of the best sites around. It is particularly useful for the consumer because of the way it summarises the known faults of various models of cars.
Also in the UK is http://www.howtocomplain.com . Co-founded by a banker who couldn't get his washing machine fixed, it has grown to become a large site offering direct access to over 2000 companies as well as all local councils. Links to legal advice and e-mail-friendly solicitors are also offered. The site has achieved its success in part by offering an easier route to the first stage of complaining for the types of complaints most people make - about goods they have bought. Other useful contacts are the Trading Standards Institute (for leaflets) at http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk from where you can contact your local Trading Standards Enforcement officers (usually at a County Council).
Sources of legal advice (but not legal advice itself) can be had from http://www.justask.org.uk. None of which helps much if you are faced either with a Council that simply refuses to answer questions, a government department that can write a three page letter without addressing a single germane point or a local Company that is so arrogant that it believes that no mere customer could damage its reputation.
Other recommended sites for legal advice include http://www.swarb.co.uk in the UK and www.gigalaw.com in the USA. However, telling the truth about lousy builders, plumbers or dentists is not as straightforward as it might seem because even if statements are true they can also be defamatory. (There are two types of defamation, libel and slander.) Thus, even if you tell the truth you might be sued.
One recent suggestion, aired in January 2003 on BBC Radio 4, is that a new top level domain should be developed on the web - to allow sites that comprise gripes against a company to be quickly identified. The suggested suffix is .sucks. Instead of having to guess or search for the name of a site that links to perhaps many others complaining about Devon County Council (for example), there would be a single top level site that mirrored the name of organisation, in this case www.devon.gov.uk. The gripes site might be www.devon.sucks. At the moment, companies are buying up variations of their name that might be snapped up by disaffected customers. This is making it harder for anyone to discover if there are sites complaining about a particular product or company, or to set one up. The key change proposed is that companies would not be allowed to buy or control any .sucks domain name, subject of course to existing laws on defamation.
There are already several websites associated with multinational companies such as GAP, NIKE and BMW. However, it seems clear that the power of the Internet for local consumer protection with a site (or part of a site) devoted to each town, county or postcode in the UK, has not yet been exploited. An US based site that has been in operation for a few years and that claims to help people air their grievances and obtain refunds is http://www.thesqueakywheel.com. If anyone uses it and obtains a good result in the UK, please let me know at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closer to home, www.ripofftipoff.net is a good idea provided people used it and if the site were to be structured more on a local basis.
Following the established pattern of the Consumers' Association who report members views and experiences of products, www.dooyoo.co.uk claim to offer a similar service on-line. However, use of the site seems sparce.
Anyone concerned about poor workmanship in a new home should look at the protest sites listed in another section of this website and also consider asking for help from inspectorhome.
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