How traders block poor reviews from reaching you
Even the once-unimpeachable Which? has now been caught in the plague of unreliable online reviews. Sam Brodbeck investigates
More evidence is emerging of chinks in the armour of Which?, the consumer products and services reviewer, Telegraph Money can disclose. The consumer group prides itself on the strength of its testing and the rigorous vetting process used on Trusted Traders, its directory of local plumbers, painters, engineers and other workmen.
Yet it appears that some firms, which pay up to £1,200 a year to be listed, are circumventing Which?’s monitoring process and deleting poor reviews before they can reach its website. The directory is free to use for consumers.
After one Telegraph Money reader made Which? aware of a business that broke a code of conduct by intercepting a critical review of its service, the trader was suspended from the directory.
The emergence of holes in Trusted Traders comes just months after an investigation by this newspaper found that fake reviews left on the site remained undetected for months and helped inflate company ratings by up to 0.6 stars out of five.
It has long been known that fake reviews plague online marketplaces such as eBay, but this was the first time it had emerged that Which? was also struggling to police rogue users.
After the investigation, Which? made a series of changes, including checking the internet addresses of computers used to post ratings. It also launched a national advertising campaign to warn of “fake reviews”.
The problem that Ben Whitney, 54, encountered was in a different vein altogether. He wasn’t tricked by fake endorsements – rather, his own reviews never made it on to the site.
Mr Whitney was looking for a local firm to replace two small windows at his home in south-west London. After bad experiences with Checkatrade, another directory, he turned to Trusted Traders and settled on a firm with more than 500 five-star reviews.
After several appointments were cancelled, the work was finally completed. Reviews can be submitted online or via a paper form given to customers by traders. But Mr Whitney was surprised when the trader insisted on taking the form with him when he left.
“It was a four-star review with a couple of minor bits of criticism but it never appeared,” he said. “He obviously read it and thought, ‘I’m not putting that in because it will ruin our pristine rating’. You’ve got to be sure enough of yourself to write something truthful while the person it’s about is hovering over you, and then they take it away and it gets lost down the back of the van.”
Mr Whitney alerted an “assessor manager” at Which?, who passed on the complaint to the trader. As the firm had to revisit the property several times to put right their repairs to the windows, this put Mr Whitney in an awkward position.
He said: “There’s not much incentive for Which?, and other reviewers, to pull the plug on traders who are paying them more than £1,000 a year.
“It seems to me that these traders are buying a veneer of respectability. In this case, the trader was able to influence the review process and protect their rating – I wouldn’t touch them again with a bargepole.”
A spokesman for Which? confirmed that the trader had now been suspended from the service for breaching the code of conduct that all firms listed on the directory must abide by. The code requires traders to provide forms to be completed “in private” and to give instructions on how to return them using prepaid envelopes. The group added: “We regularly reassess traders and they are
More than a million households may be unable to benefit from the new breed of fully switchable smart meters, it has emerged.
The £11bn smart meter roll-out, promoted by celebrities including Kirstie Allsopp, has seen more than 12 million devices installed. However, it has been dogged by issues of meters “going dumb” and losing their smart functions when a customer switches energy supplier.
Switching remains the best t way to reduce energy bills. Customers mers with smart meters can change e provider, but they will typically lly lose the “smart” benefits.
The new generation of meters ters is supposed to connect to a centralised network accessible le by all suppliers, fixing the problem. em.
But Telegraph Money has learned that dozens of energy y firms are not yet full members s of the network, meaning their customers will not receive fully functioning meters.
The news comes just a week ek before the date at which energy gy firms must stop installing first-generation smart meters. s. It is another blow to the Government’s flagship clean energy policy, which was heavily criticised last week by spending watchdogs.
Jane Lucy, of switching service The Labrador, said: “Consumer benefits from the smart meter roll-out exist when consumers know how to unlock them. Time and time again they are told to switch and save, yet with the new meters, despite all the promises, it now appears they can’t.”
She added that the energy regulator, Ofgem, should do more to make sure consumers benefit from smart meters, and called on it to reveal the names of the suppliers yet to sign up.
Firms go through several testing stages before they can become full members of the network, operated by the Data Communications Company (DCC), a part of Capita, a process that can take months.
Ofgem said it would consider enforcement action against suppliers not yet signed up. A spokesman for the DCC said 95pc of consumers are with suppliers capable of installing second-generation meters. That leaves roughly 1.3 million households at risk of missing out. removed from our scheme if found to be in breach of our high standards. Our rigorous moderation process meant we were already carrying out an investigation into this trader before The Telegraph contacted us, and the trader’s contract has been terminated.”
Trusted Traders lists 9,000 firms but Which? would not say how many it had suspended since the service was launched in 2013.
Another review site operated by Which? – Local – was closed earlier this year because, Which? said, it wasn’t monitored closely enough. Firms were listed solely on the basis of member reviews, without any independent assessment.
James Daley, of Fairer Finance, a consumer group that rates financial services, said: “Review sites have become incredibly important and there’s been very little scrutiny of their validity. More people rely on them, but top ratings mean less. We’re storing up a big problem for the future.”