How traders block poor re­views from reach­ing you

The Daily Telegraph - Your Money - - FRONT PAGE - Sam Mead­ows

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.”

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