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It was a classic insulation scam. The conman had targeted a vulnerable elderly person, discovered a nonexistent damp problem in the loft, and claimed his product would solve it. In reality, it was useless and dangerous, more likely to cause damp than to remedy it. He had brought a card reader in his briefcase, and extracted the money on the spot.
It was pure luck that the victim knew an investigative journalist. By the time I rang the scammer, I’d discovered enough to put the fear of God into him. A few minutes into our conversation, he panicked and started telling me everything, including the name of the aggregation agency he uses, which collects the phone numbers of vulnerable people, rings them, probes their weak points and then puts them in touch with the appropriate predator, who pays a fee for the service.
As soon as the call finished, he repaid the money. But I wanted to stop him, and the agency, from operating. I now had enough information to help an enthusiastic investigator take down an entire network. So I tried to contact the county’s trading standards office, only to discover that it’s impossible. Contact with the public has been outsourced to a charity: Citizens Advice.
The people I spoke to were pleasant and professional. They recorded what I told them and promised they would pass it on. Three weeks later, I phoned again to see how the case was progressing. No, Citizens Advice told me, I had no means of finding out. Trading standards would contact me only if they needed more information. Otherwise, they don’t speak to us any more.
In the meantime, I’d discovered that trading standards offices have been cut to the bone across the country. Staff numbers have fallen by at least 50% since 2010 as council budgets have been slashed. Skilled, experienced officers have been replaced by unskilled, sometimes untrained workers. And much of their time is now spent trying to raise money for the council by offering paid advice to businesses.
It would not surprise me if the information I gave them was filed in the bin. If complainants have no means of discovering whether their cases are being investigated, councils facing extreme budgetary pressures have little incentive to pursue them. It’s a cast-iron rule of officialdom: no accountability is likely to mean no action.
I could have tried a different channel, a national agency called Action Fraud. But this too is a skeleton service. Complaints are screened by AI, and the great majority are not pursued, often for opaque and inexplicable reasons. This system is also unaccountable to complainants.
When I mentioned this case on social media, I was inundated with similar stories: of people running into a wall of unaccountable, opaque bureaucracy when they tried to report the theft of their money. Builders who abscond with deposits, travel companies failing to provide refunds, scammers registering cars in another person’s name and racking up fines, fake letting agents, predatory landlords, crooks selling phoney electronics, phishing outfits: all may now steal with impunity because the systems that were meant to stop them have fallen over. Those who fail to reclaim their money find there is no recourse. If you snatch someone’s bag, you might feel the hand of the law on your shoulder; if you empty their bank account, you have little to fear. So guess where the crims are directing their efforts.
Sometimes austerity involves sudden rupture: an immediate loss of services that we notice and protest against. More often it’s death by a thousand cuts: incremental destruction of the public realm, leaving us with outsourced, inaccessible, dysfunctional services. Successive Conservative governments have made these cuts in the name of efficiency. We experience this marvellous efficiency as The Four Seasons plays on an endless loop while we wait to talk to someone in a call centre with no power to act, subcontracted to someone else in a Kafkaesque nightmare of privatised, inscrutable bureaucracy, unable to resolve our problems or meet our needs. Nothing works any more.
None of these cuts and dysfunctions were necessary: they are all political choices. It’s no accident that workers are being illegally ripped off: minimum-wage inspectors are now so scarce that businesses, on average, can expect a visit once every 250 years. It’s no accident that businesses are taking risks with their workers’ lives: health and safety enforcement has been gutted. It’s no accident that the Environment Agency appears to have stopped prosecuting river pollution by farmers, or that Natural England can no longer prevent illegal habitat destruction: both have lost around two-thirds of their funding over the past 10 years. It’s no accident that London has become the world’s money-laundering capital. It’s the business model. In most cases, the laws required to protect us exist. But without enforcement, they’re a dead letter.
I doubt it began as a deliberate strategy, but if it were, it could scarcely be bettered. You position yourself as the party of law and order and fulminate about crime. But, incrementally and almost invisibly, you destroy the state’s capacity to tackle it. A cynical politician might note that the more vulnerable to crime we are, and the more fearful and insecure we become, the more their brand of rightwing demagoguery will prosper. Heaven forbid we should be governed by such a person.