28 March 2014

A Peerless Trading Standards champion

Rogue traders and purveyors of counterfeit goods should not be sleeping soundly in their beds in Brighton & Hove. Especially now that Principal Trading Standards Officer John Peerless is the elected chair of the national Trading Standards Institute. As such he is the ‘sounding board’ of frontline officers up and down the country.

This August John will have notched 40 years in Trading Standards, most of it in Brighton and Hove.

“The best thing about the job is making a difference to the lives of consumers, helping to protect them,” he said.

John now works part-time in Brighton & Hove, using his extensive knowledge on investigations, while also heading up a special project for Ealing Council tackling rogue trading in a specific area of the borough. He says that sometimes it is difficult to put across how dangerous fake goods are.

“We found 67,000 cheap mobile phone chargers in one premises. The trouble is if someone buys one for five pounds and it doesn’t work, people will shrug it off and not think they have lost much, but what if it overheats and ruins your phone or even sets fire to the house? It’s difficult to assess what the detriment to the consumer is. It could potentially be 67,000 unusable phone chargers or numerous damaged phones, but possibly properties damaged by fire.”

Over half of people in a recent national survey said they had purchased some counterfeit goods, with 18% saying they had bought fake alcohol and 16% fake medicines.* The Office of Fair Trading estimates the value of consumer detriment from people purchasing such goods is around £3 billion.**

It’s a lot different from when John started in 1974 as a trainee weights and measures inspector. Then it was mainly about inspections and included vehicle testing on weighbridges. Now trading standards investigate counterfeit goods including fake alcohol and tobacco, scams, loan sharks, rogue doorstep traders, food fraud, animal health, product safety and administer use of surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

These days they also have to be acquainted with buying online which goes across international borders and ‘e-crime’.

Being involved in tackling loan sharks led John to suggest providing a credit union for the East Brighton area.

“It started from nothing. We invited people to come along to a workshop in Whitehawk to explore the idea. About 25 people came and it went from there.”

In the early days John gave up every Saturday to help the community develop a credit union for the city. It eventually became the East Sussex Credit Union.

In 1997 when Brighton and Hove councils combined, John became Head of service and joined the regional group of 19 Councils, Trading Standards South East, which worked together to achieve consistent cross border enforcement. During his time on the group he has led on the development of a Computer Forensics facility, regional training and financial investigations.

In 2009 he was seconded to Surrey County Council to run the SCAMBUSTERS team which supported 62 local authorities in the South east, London and east of England to tackle cross border crime.

One of the most elaborate was an employment scam where people were offered a ‘guaranteed’ job by a company that was selecting people who had posted their CVs online. First they had to get a qualification which they had to pay for. If they didn’t have the money, they were directed to a credit finance company (not linked to the scammer) for a loan. They borrowed the money, signed up for the course, which then closed down, and were left with no qualification or job. The company was estimated to have made over £19 million. Trading standards persuaded the credit finance company to write off nearly £4 million for people who could not afford to pay back the money.

“Rogue traders are rare,” he says: “But when someone is targeted it is very distressing. They pick on vulnerable people and once they find someone fraudsters share information so that they can target them again.”

John’s appointment as Chair means he will be involved in making representations to government, councils, community and business sectors. The Trading Standards Institute lobbies to improve consumer protection, together with helping businesses operate in a fair market.

With trading standards’ teams shrinking up and down the country, trading standards officers work as part of a team that includes the police, revenue and customs, the fire service and business organisations.

John explained: “We can’t be on everyone’s doorstep and we can’t deliver messages to everyone. Brighton & Hove developed a ‘Say No’ training package about rogue traders for community groups, Neighbourhood Watch and the police so they can spread the word to residents.”

Brighton & Hove also has an online business advice page and is part of the ‘Buy with Confidence’ scheme. It’s an approved scheme where traders can advertise and where residents can find reliable tradespeople.

And John’s best advice is for consumers?

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if someone approaches you,  ask them to come back when someone is with you. If they are intent on fraud they will not be making that second visit.”

ends

*Counterfeit Goods in the UK – consumer survey October 2013 http://www.pwc.co.uk/forensic-services/counterfeit-goods-in-the-uk-consumer-survey-oct2013.jhtml

* * Consumer Detriment 2012 http://www.consumerfocus.org.uk/publications/consumer-detriment-2012