Trading standards office warning on Council Tax ‘rebate’ calls

The trading standards department at Croydon Council has issued a warning to residents to beware of companies offering a form of “research service” to get them a reduction in their Council Tax bills.

Council tax form 4A 72-year-old South Norwood resident was charged £65 for “extensive research” following a cold call by a salesman, until the council’s trading standards officers stepped in. The salesman’s contact had left the pensioner believing that they had been speaking with a member of council staff.

The call was made despite the woman’s details being listed with the Telephone Preference Service, designed to prevent cold calls.

Council officers are warning residents that they could receive similar calls from companies that, while offering a legitimate service, fail to follow industry guidelines put in place to protect consumers.

The sales spiel involved telling the woman that many properties had been incorrectly banded, and so she might be owed money for overpayment of Council Tax.

The caller even tried to persuade the elderly woman to tell them her bank account details over the phone, so that her “rebate” might be paid straight into her account. The only reason the pensioner did not provide the requested details was unable to find her account number.

At no time during the call was the woman told that she was speaking to someone from a private company, or that there would be a £65 charge.

Only subsequently did she receive a letter, dated the day after the phone call, revealing the company name and advising that “extensive research” carried out on her behalf showed that her home was in the correct Council Tax band and so that no refund was due.

Mark Watson: keeping a check on cold callers

Mark Watson: check on cold callers

The service fee and cancellation rights were referred to only in small-print documents attached to the letter, and the service appeared to have been provided during the 14-day cooling-off period, during which the customer is able to cancel the contract.

Additionally, the company address as stated in the letter and for cancellation purposes was incorrect.

Mark Watson, the council’s cabinet member responsible for legal issues, said: “This is a sorry case of a company offering a legitimate service failing what are basic telephone sales rules that it, and all its staff, should be aware of.

“Those regulations are designed to protect consumers – especially vulnerable consumers – who have the right, in law, to correct information about the company they’re dealing with, and to the opportunity to change their mind as to whether they want to go through with a service that they subsequently realise they don’t actually need.

“This customer was let down on so many counts, and one wonders how many others have received a similarly poor service from this, and other, companies that are simply not playing by the rules.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing here is that what the company involved was doing is entirely legal: offering a service to “research” something, which probably does not need much checking, and then seeking to charge an excessive rate for their “service”.

Of course, in the past any doubt over Council Tax could have been resolved by a simple call to the council’s own help lines, but this is one service which has been cut back savagely as a consequence of Town Hall spending reductions. When the council issued its press release yesterday, it was notable that it offered no local authority help line nor web page to visit, but instead advised using a voluntary agency for information.

Visit the Consumers’ Advice Bureau website here for advice on consumers’ 14-day cooling-off period.

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