SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS (Brandon Hartley) – Last week, Google announced it would ban all adverts by plumbers in the Netherlands in an effort to tackle the scammers who had been placing ads to lure in hundreds of victims.
The ban, unfortunately, came too late for Sophia and Johan who paid thousands of euros for a job on their houseboat in Amsterdam. Even worse, she says the local authorities have done little to help her and her partner Johan set things right.
A few months ago, Sophia and Johan discovered a leak in their ceiling during a cold and rainy night.
Johan, who was working nights at the time, tried to fix the problem, but eventually realised they needed to call a plumber who could determine what exactly was happening.
In a rush, he choose a company after a quick Google search, called them, and was told a plumber who could also handle problems with roofs would be there soon. Sophia, who was ill and feeling lousy, stayed up late to deal with the disaster and Johan headed to his workplace.
About an hour later, not just one but two plumbers showed up. “They told me they’d fix it and give us a lifetime guarantee,” Sophia told Dutch News. “Their call out was €400 plus €40 an hour for each plumber. They said I could claim it on our insurance and they’d send me the invoice.”
They spent about 30 minutes on the roof. When they climbed back down, the leak was slowly stopping but so was the rain outside. They told her it would end in about ten minutes and the remaining leakage was ‘old water.’
Then they showed her an invoice on an electronic tablet and demanded she pay it on the spot – the bill was also much higher than the original estimate at well over €2,500. All alone, sick, exhausted, and facing down two surly plumbers in the middle of the night, Sophia decided to just pay them.
“I was panicking and one guy said to me ‘the longer you take to pay, the higher the charge’ and that was when I knew I needed them out of the house,” she said. “I was scared. They said the invoice would be emailed to me within ten minutes. It never arrived.”
When Johan checked the work on his return home, he realised they had not done anything at all. The leak was caused by a cover that had been removed and set aside by a forgetful repairman a few days earlier. The leak had stopped with the rain.
Not the only ones
Johan and Sophia both repeatedly tried to contact the plumber’s company for an explanation or at least a copy of the invoice. They were told a manager would call them back. They never did. Then they were told they’d get an email. It never came. They also diligently filled out an online complaint form on the company’s website but never got a response. After all that, Sophia tried to call yet again and discovered her number had been blocked.
“Their MO is so skilled you don’t realise what is happening”
Googling revealed additional details about the company and how it has treated other customers. Sophia and Johan found dozens of complaints, one star reviews, and blog posts with horror stories about customers dealing with problems caused by the company’s plumbers.
“There’s a whole community of people affected who also want their story to be known, primarily to stop them,” Sophia said.
One customer described their toilet overflowing with sewage waste after it was supposedly fixed. Sophia and Johan contacted a few of their fellow victims.
“The plumbers’ MO is so skilled that you don’t realise what’s happened until they’ve gone,” she said. “The people we’ve spoken to all describe the same feeling. One woman hadn’t gone to the police because she felt so stupid about what happened.”
Sophia and Johan repeatedly contacted the authorities and even went to their local police station with evidence of what happened to themselves and others. After several conversations and exchanged messages, Sophia says no action was taken.
“They told us to be more careful with advertisments”
“They told us we could go to a victim support organisation and to next time be more careful with advertisements,” says Johan. “That’s all the advice they gave us.”
Along with the Consumentenbond, the victims of fraud in the Netherlands can contact other agencies like Klachtenkompas and Meld Misdaad Anoniem. However, they can only serve as mediators and register complaints. They have no legal authority.
Johan said he contacted the Chamber of Commerce and filed a complaint with ACM, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets. He also called a law firm but said they did little to help.
“The firm I contacted had a list of scamming businesses and the one we used was listed,” he said. “I asked them what the chances were of getting our money back if we hired them. I was told they would get back in touch with me. They never did.”
Dutch News attempted to contact the company Sophia and Johan hired to fix their leak, which is still operating despite 70 negative reviews on the website Trustpilot at the time of this writing and further complaints that can be found via a quick Google search.
Their voicemail instructed potential customers to contact them via their website in order to make an appointment because they’re ‘having problems with their phone system.’ The message claimed they would receive a call back in as few as five minutes.
A further look at their website indicates it only serves as an intermediary between customers and plumbers. While they claim they verify the skills and reliability of the plumbers they collaborate with, the “workmen” are self-employed. The fine print informs customers that “the final agreement is between you and the specialist”.
This leaves customers with little recourse if they encounter a scammer and the company with few, if any, legal obligations to intervene if things go awry.
There’s also no denying the impact on the victims of these scams, which often goes beyond a financial setback.
“It’s also about what it does to people,” Sophia said. “It’s not just about the loss of money, which is a lot when it’s your wages you’ve just handed over to someone. It’s also about trust. How do you know who’s safe?” (Brandon Hartley)
Names and certain details have been altered to protect the identities of those involved.