WARNING: 'Bitumen bandits' are targeting Gympie region
The Office of Fair Trading is warning Gympie residents with door-to-door scammers ramping up their operations with many people at home because of COVID-19.
During 2019, the OFT received 10 reports about bitumen bandits. This figure has increased substantially with 14 reports about bitumen bandits since social distancing and isolation commenced in March 2020.
Executive Director Brian Bauer said bitumen bandits were bogus tradespeople who ripped off unsuspecting and vulnerable consumers by peddling bitumen laying services for a supposed "substantial discount".
"The scam starts when someone knocks on your door and tells you they have asphalt or bitumen leftover from a "nearby job" and offer to sell it to you at a heavily reduced cost," Bauer said.
"Regardless of how solid the offer seems, itinerant bitumen layers often leave consumers out of pocket.
"They may ask for a deposit and simply never return to do the work, or they do such a substandard job with watered down bitumen, it may cost you a lot more money to fix the job.
"On other occasions, the traders initially quote a low cost but then a much higher payment is demanded during the work for it to be completed. Consumers are forced to comply because if the work isn't finished, they're unable to use their driveway.
"Bitumen bandits vary their approaches to unsuspecting consumers and mix and match their sales pitches with high pressure tactics, depending on what they think will work with the consumer they are targeting."
In March 2020, in Smithfield near Cairns, authorities were called after a businessman reported that four men were in the process of carrying out bitumen works at his property.
The group had doorknocked the businessman earlier that day to advise they had left over bitumen from a nearby job, and their boss had instructed them to sell it off at a discounted price in order to get rid of it quickly.
The group initially quoted a relatively cheap price to do the job. However, when they arrived later that afternoon to begin the work, they said the quote had tripled.
The businessman, concerned about the sudden price jump, did a search online and found details about a similar scam had been operating Gympie.
He advised the tradesmen that the job was off and authorities were on their way. The team quickly packed up and left.
"Right now, the bitumen bandits could be in your suburb posing as salesmen or tradesmen, so it's vital to know your rights so you don't get ripped off," Mr Bauer said.
Other common door-to-door scams include offers for tree lopping and stump removal, roof cleaning, repairs and painting, and white van traders who sell electronic equipment like stereos from their vehicles which are later discovered to be "knock offs".
Under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), consumers have extra rights if they receive unsolicited approaches by traders at their homes.
Door-to-door traders must advise consumers about a 10-day cooling-off period, and they must not accept payment or begin any services during this time.
"If they try to get payment straight away that is a red flag for consumers that the traders are not complying with the law," Mr Bauer said.
Mr Bauer said Queensland's laws recognised that consumers were more vulnerable when door knocked.
"By putting consumers on the spot for an instant decision, door-to-door traders remove the option consumers usually have to shop around, to compare prices and to check reviews of trader's previous work," he said.
"Some door-to-door traders take advantage of the fact that people find it hard to say no or to tell traders to leave, and they pressure consumers into buying goods or services that they may not want or need.
"It's okay to say no, you don't have to buy, agree to anything, or sign anything if approached by a salesperson at your door. Don't let politeness stop you from shutting your door and walking away". In August of last year, the Office of Fair Trading prosecuted a Brisbane asphalt contractor in the Caloundra Magistrates Court. He was ordered to pay $64,850 in fines, penalties and compensation for failing to meet the obligations required by the ACL for unsolicited door-to-door trading.
To help consumers the Office of Fair Trading produces free 'Do-not-Knock' stickers for them to place on their letter box or front door. It is an offence under the ACL for traders to approach a residence displaying one of these notices.
Consumers can request a free 'Do-not-Knock' sticker from the Office of Fair Trading's website at www.qld.gov.au/fairtrading or by calling 13 QGOV (13 74 68).
Information for traders on door-to-door rules and their obligations under the ACL is available on fair trading's website at www.qld.gov.au/fairtrading.
Consumers can lodge a complaint against a trader at qld.gov.au/fairtrading or by calling 13 QGOV (13 74 68).