Proper Gander: Sold A Pup?

If you’ve been ripped off by a cowboy builder or scammed by a fraudster, then BBC1’s Watchdog could sniff around and get to the bottom of the issue. Since 1980 its reporters have investigated suspect business practices and exposed con-artists through undercover filming and foot-in-the-door confrontations. As well as raising awareness of ‘consumer rights’, the programme has been instrumental in recalls of dangerous products, closing down ‘rogue traders’ and securing compensation payments. In doing this, it highlights the cynical, exploitative nature of capitalism.

The programme regularly hounds ‘rogue traders’, firms which leave the job badly done and the customer disappointed. One example featured was a car rental business which hired out uninsured and unroadworthy motors to unknowing drivers, another was a delivery company with a track record of damaging and mishandling its parcels. Deliberately shoddy work tends to come about when the motivation to make a fast buck overrides any motivation to do a job well. So, tasks are rushed, or cheaper, sub-standard materials are used, or corners are cut. The less time spent on labour and the less money spent out, the more profit for the owners. Of course, this approach isn’t just found among ‘rogue traders’ – it’s built in to any enterprise within capitalism. A company only tips over into being a ‘rogue trader’ when it pushes its luck by breaking the law or the contract about what it will do. Some use more complicated rip-offs than just short-changing their punters. Fraudsters trick people into parting with their money, whether by pretending to be from an official organisation or hacking into bank accounts.

Watchdog reported how getting money back after it’s been scammed away is far from easy when banks reject fraud claims, adding insult to injury. Banks aren’t keen to sacrifice some of their potential profits by paying out, so will place a high burden of proof on the claimant. Only a quarter of the money lost to fraud ends up being refunded to victims, a failing which Watchdog attributes to the Financial Ombudsman Service. This organisation investigates disputes between consumers and financial services such as banks, insurance companies and investment firms, with 250 cases dealt with each week. It’s funded by these financial services, so no wonder it appears biased in their favour. People unlucky enough to get scammed often lose out twice, once to the fraudsters and then to the bank.

Watchdog has a bone to pick with unwanted phone calls as well. ‘Cold calling’, also known as ‘direct marketing’, is another way that scammers find their prey, although the technique can be used by firms working within the law. It’s usually just as we’re sitting down with our dinner when we get a phone call asking us about the accident we were recently involved in or trying to flog us double glazing or arrange PPI compensation. Registering with the Telephone Preference Service is supposed to remove your phone number from the list which direct marketeers can use, although this doesn’t stop the most unscrupulous ones. Despite cold calling being widely resented, the tactic must work otherwise the companies wouldn’t carry on doing it. If they call thousands of people, it only takes a few to part with their money to make it financially viable. Older people are targeted as they’re seen as particularly vulnerable to being conned. Cold calling sums up how alienating capitalist society can be. It must be a rather sad life to sit in a blandly oppressive call centre somewhere, treating whoever you’re phoning as nothing more than an opportunity to claw in money, a fraction of which you’ll get back as wages. No-one aspires to work in direct marketing; it’s the kind of job which people fall into when they’re desperate for cash and don’t have other options.

Watchdog also draws attention to misleading marketing techniques. For instance, some online clothes shops have time limited discounts on their clobber. On their websites, the clock which counts down to when the offer runs out just resets itself after the advertised deadline. It might not seem such a huge problem if a cheaper deal is always available rather than only for a short time, but really it’s a cynical marketing ploy. The countdown is supposed to give us the fear of missing out if we don’t buy quickly enough. It’s a way of being pressured into buying. Again, the aim is to squeeze as much money from us as possible. All advertising is a type of manipulation, even if this method is a bit more deceitful than most.

While Watchdog highlights problems and doggedly works to improve things for people who’ve had a bad deal, there’s a limit to how much it can achieve. Its bark is worse than its bite. ‘Consumer rights’ campaigners can help shape policies and reforms, but they can’t stop the impetus to maximise profits by whatever dodgy means possible; it’s inherent in capitalism.