Invasion of the squat-shop traders brings dodgy gear to high street

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The Independent Online
ROGUE TRADERS, selling goods that are often shoddy and even dangerous, are expanding from car boot sales into the high street by squatting in vacant shops, according to trading standards officers. This sort of trade is being assisted by a gang of criminals who travel about the country seeking out empty shops, breaking in, changing the locks, then selling bogus leases to the fly-by-night traders.

A year ago a highly organised national chain of "squat shops" was broken up, and directors of the company were imprisoned for three years for VAT evasion of pounds 400,000, ending a nine-month investigation by Customs and Excise. The Prizebuys company had a network of 70 squat shops, including some in Oxford Street, and the court was told that nearly all the country's squat shops were supplied and run through this one operation.

Trading standards officers say that a new, equally serious, trend has now developed. Tony Northcott, vice-chairman of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration and a trading officer for the London borough of Haringey, says: "There has certainly been an increase. The sellers of shoddy goods started on the markets, moved into car boots and now are looking for something more permanent, which is open every day."

Mr Northcott says these traders sell products that have been rejected by the leading stores and are often worthless, such as defective computers and computer games, as well as electrical goods that are dangerous.

"We need to send electrical goods away for testing, and we have to hope that the traders are still there when we get the results back," Mr Northcott explains. "Unless they are very prominent and officers spot them on their way into work, the first we know of them is when customers start complaining. Other traders may also complain to us."

Rogue retailers sometimes use loud music and public address equipment to draw the attention of shoppers, and this on occasion enables trading standards officers to take action under noise control legislation, by impounding the sound equipment. "Though that doesn't solve the problem of shoddy goods," Mr Northcott adds.

"There are teams of people touring the country, identifying empty shops, changing the locks, and selling the keys," explains Roy Hill, assistant trading standards officer for Oxfordshire council. "One fellow we sorted out was clearly a fall guy. He said he had paid for a lease on the shop from a fellow he had met in a pub, who sold him a bogus lease - and he knew it was a bogus lease. It cost him pounds 11,000 in lost stock. We would say it served him right."

Many "squat traders" are guilty of the worst forms of high-pressure selling, in particular through mock auctions. Once a large crowd has been drawn to the sale by way of a public address system, the shoppers find the doors locked behind them. In Oxford, the trader was offering cameras and colour televisions at bargain prices, with Sony Walkman portable stereos on sale for just pounds 5.

"They then go through a very clever auctioning spiel and get everyone excited," says Mr Hill. "They extract pounds 100, pounds 200, or pounds 300 for nothing. The box has been swapped. People part with their money, and they get home and find they have a box of towels. It's a growing problem." Other goods sold are counterfeit, produced as part of a way of laundering drugs money.

Squatting, whether in residential or commercial property, has been a civil rather than a criminal offence, and retaking possession through the courts often takes many weeks. Last year's Criminal Justice Act included clauses that would make squatting criminally illegal, thus simplifying and speeding up the process of eviction.

But these procedures only come into effect when the Rules of Court are changed. A Home Office spokeswoman says: "It is intended that these measures are brought in later this year." It will not be a moment too soon for trading standards officers and legitimate retailers.