Questions of Cash: Emergency plumber charged over £1,000 for turning off a stopcock


Q. In February, a pipe burst in our upstairs bedroom at 11.30 at night. Shortly after, due to the torrent of water pouring down through the house, the ceiling in the hall collapsed. I was still at work, my wife was extremely stressed and my eldest daughter did some very quick internet research and found the number of emergency plumbers.

The company, London's Emergency Plumbers, gave her a verbal quote of £180 emergency call-out fee and £150 per half hour. Expensive, but it was an emergency. They wouldn't come out without being given our card details first, which my wife provided. The plumber arrived later than promised and by that time the water flow from the tank had all but stopped. All the plumber did was turn off a stopcock to prevent further water going to the upstairs bathroom. He was with us no longer than half an hour. We weren't given an invoice and the plumber said head office would take care of it.

A few days later I noticed from an ATM receipt that the balance of our account had gone down considerably. Checking online I found the plumbing company had taken £1,058.40 from our account. I called them up to query this and they claim they quoted us a half-hourly rate of £239.00 and they were with us for 90 minutes. Both of which are completely untrue. A further bit of online research showed that London's Emergency Plumbers was well known to the BBC's Rogue Traders programme.

I spoke to Citizens' Advice, which suggested I wrote to the plumbing company using a Citizens' Advice template letter, which I did. They notified Hackney Trading Services where I live, which notified Bedford Trading Standards, which is where the plumbing company is based. I spoke to NatWest Visa, but they weren't very helpful. Citizens' Advice said to be persistent and ask for a chargeback, but when I called again the NatWest Visa debit retail dispute number they said because the price agreement with the plumbing company was verbal, they couldn't do anything. AS, London.

A. When we phoned London's Emergency Plumbers, our calls went to an answerphone, where a recording said that the message system was full and could not take further messages. Emails sent to the email address listed on its website bounced. An internet search suggested that the person behind the company is Muhammed Shamrez, who has also traded as Express Plumbers of Bedford. There are many complaints online against the two businesses about similar trading practices to yours, involving excessive charges for small amounts of work.

We made a strong argument to NatWest that we believed its chargeback rules should apply in this case. It has now agreed to refund the charge above that quoted to you on the phone, which itself was a very hefty £180 call-out, plus £150 for half an hour, plus VAT. That has left you with a bill of £396, but NatWest has accepted a chargeback of £662 which has been refunded to your account. It would seem that London's Emergency Plumbers and Express Plumbers of Bedford are no longer trading. Other, legitimate, plumbing businesses operate with similar names.

Q. I accommodate Google Adsense adverts on my website. I'm registered for VAT, but I don't know how to claim from Google the VAT element on the sale. Can you find out for me? CW, London.

A. Google says that although your payments are received in sterling the payments are made from its operational base in Ireland. As this is in effect a service you provide to another EU country, VAT is not chargeable. However, the UK's VAT regulations do indicate that you zero rate on sales to other EU countries on the basis that the service is received outside the UK.

If companies advertising on your website are based in the UK, the zero rating could theoretically be challenged by HMRC. But given the amounts involved, this seems unlikely. HMRC has bigger issues to deal with regarding Google, though your experience might be regarded as symptomatic of the wider controversy on tax avoidance.

Q. I recently bought an iPad Mini and chose a SIM-only broadband package with 3 Mobile. I chose this as the cheapest option, but also because its website says it is easy to check your data usage. I do not want to be charged extra for going over my monthly allowance. The SIM was damaged and could not be fitted into the iPad, so I returned it the next day and was issued with a replacement.

I filled in a form on 3's website in order to receive a password so that I can check my data usage and got a response that the password had been sent to my device. I did not receive it. When I called 3, I was told that the only way I can get the password is to remove the SIM from the iPad and put it into my mobile phone. But the SIM is delicate and I don't want to damage it and I don't have a device that the SIM would fit. 3 will not send me a password by email or allow me to choose a password on its website. RM, London.

A. 3 says that its systems and security controls prevent the password being provided to you in any other way. To circumvent this we arranged with 3 for you to visit your local store. Staff there were expecting you and would have let you use a compatible iPhone, transfer the SIM from the iPad to the iPhone and that way enable you to download your password.

Staff would have been responsible for ensuring that the SIM was not damaged in this process. But you have expressed frustration that this is apparently the only solution available and have decided to cancel the contract.

Questions of Cash cannot give individual advice. But if you have a financial dilemma, we'll do our best to help. Please email us at:

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