/ Home & Energy, Money

Scam watch: the council tax band ruse

Council tax

If you were in the wrong band for council tax would you need to pay a company to reclaim the refund? No – but scammers would convince you otherwise.

Roger Abel told us: My 89-year-old father recently received a cold call by a company claiming that his council tax banding was too high. They said they would obtain a refund for him. He was asked to give his bank details to register a £65 fee to handle the administration and process the refund.

Luckily, he had his wits about him and realised it was a scam. It appears that this company is targeting elderly people. One of my father’s neighbours, who is 94 years old, paid the £65 fee to this company and had it refunded by her bank after reporting what had happened.

Our say on council tax scammers

We’re aware of a few claims management companies offering to challenge your council tax band on your behalf for a fee.

It appears that some may mislead people into believing they’re due a refund, or some may even take the fee without making any challenge to your local council. Often they’re very persistent and won’t take no for an answer.

We imagine that this company probably did make a challenge as its terms and conditions state that it will refund the £65 admin fee, and instead charge successful claimants a hefty chunk of their council tax rebate.

If you, or someone you know, get a similar call, we advise that you report them to Action Fraud and to the police.

If you want to challenge your council tax band, you can do it free of charge by contacting your local Valuation Office Agency (VOA).

Useful links

How to report a scam

Comments
Member

This is not a dissimilar wheeze to the E111 health card. Once again, it’s worth implementing a simple rule: never act instantly and always, always consult with a trusted friend or family member before doing anything.

Member

It’s the law of nature: for every opportunity there is an appropriate parasite.

Member

This is just a sign of the times it is the cultural “spirit ” of the new age =dont give a sucker an even brake it will only get worse and will not stop . Many platitudes will be said but it boils down to the new society of get rich quick on the backs of the poor . Gone are the moral values of long ago of honesty and humanitarianism in its place is corruption /greed and slyness which are the value judgments from the top down. These values are imported to form a society of only caring for yourself its an enterprisal off-shoot of Western society along with hacking your computer for bank details and phishing emails nothing is going to get done about it because in doing so the new value society would be undermined and we cant have that can we ?

Member

I think that is a very pessimistic outlook Duncan. History tells us that exploitation of the vulnerable has been going on for as long as human society has existed. It is more sophisticated now and there is more awareness but I don’t think it is out of proportion to the growth of the population and the greater civilisation of the world. I am constantly heartened by the good deeds that are done throughout society and the sense of community that does exist whereby people will look out for elderly or vulnerable neighbours.

To say that nothing is going to get done about it is to ignore the measures that have been taken to improve security, to prevent the misuse of personal data, and to thwart criminal activity. Times change and crimes change. Today we have to worry a lot more about our personal details being taken than about our homes being broken into. We have to be careful not to be taken advantage of. We can help people to avoid the scams and more can be done educate people. To some extent, in the subject of this Conversation, the opportunity to operate a scam is partly due to the complexity of the local tax system with the rating of properties carried out by an ‘invisible’ executive agency of government and the collection of the taxes by a local authority [in my case one of three that provide municipal services to our home and area – how is the citizen to know who does what?]. Where there is confusion there will be exploitation. We do need to do more to inform people and to protect them. I would suggest that any council receiving an application for a council tax refund or a re-banding of their property should check its source in the first instance and seek to uncover any improper practices. It is not illegal to apply for a council tax re-banding on behalf of a property owner and one would expect to pay for such a service. But if the approach is a con and there is no intention to put in an application then that is a criminal offence of obtaining money by false pretences. The best protection is to adopt Ian’s advice given in the first comment on this page.

Member

John ,obviously you are not as old as me for I remember ,as a child not having to lock your door or youn could buy a standard front door key at the shop down the road . A single policeman was all that was needed in an area ,crime was mainly confined to gangs who werec well known and fought against each other but even then they had a sense of value and wouldnt attack the old/infirm/poor and no I didnt live in the country growing up . I have seen English values go through the floor because of media conditioning normally foreign to the values here its “dog eats dog ” now everybody is fair game to con/rob the most vulnerable in society I remember statements from well known gangs saying anybody hurting the old/infirm would be “taken care of ” . Now children are brought up at school to accept the new values which they think is normal war is rammed down their throats in computer games ,blood,gore,torture is now made to condition them to perpetual war so that killing is just a game , no John I abhor this new society it certainly isnt the values I grew up with. Just look at the increase in those taking anti-depressants even as children and those committing suicide in many cases because they cant afford what the media tell them they must buy to be accepted in society and of coarse we all must all be in debt ,mustn’t we to keep the banks (bankers ) in profit ?

Member

Is this now off topic? Perhaps we should have a separate conversation “Is modern society fit for purpose”? Although as this is a consumers’ association, and much of the commenting verges on political, perhaps it would not fit in with Which?’s apolitical position.

Member

Ah! So now its not just no political comments -okay– but not even “verging on the political” . This country and every country in the World is political every day the public pass political comments so even if you see a “bull in a china shop ” you ignore it and say-see no evil -hear no evil -speak no evil to deny the acts of any government dont hurt the 99 % is to lie by omission. So you cannot say anything against any government act ,but hold on comments have been made in the past on government decisions here why havent they been “struck down ” you cant have one law for one person and not for another unless you want to be accused of the accusations that this government applies to countries it thinks are “oppressive ” (only one point of view allowed ) .

Member

This conversation is to talk about the council tax band ruse scam and other similar scams. Keeping on topic is one of the most important rules of Which? Conversation, which you can read about in our guidelines: https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines/ Please stick to the discussions at hand.

Member

As far as I can see if you believe your council tax band is wrong you apply to the VOA (Valuation Office Agency) for rebanding. The service is free. If you disagree with their judgement you can appeal to a tribunal, again free.

https://www.gov.uk/council-tax-appeals/challenge-your-band

The first thing to do is to decide why you think your valuation (based on 1991 valuation) might be wrong, by checking similar properties in your area. Or you property may have been modified since the valuation. Always the danger your band may go up of course.

Paying someone to do work on your behalf that may benefit you
is fair, if there is genuine work to be done. But responding to cold calling should be avoided – not many people are altruistic and really want to help you without being asked.

I would think that unless the caller has good grounds to expect your tax to be reduced they could be charged with fraud – or extracting money by false pretences. Perhaps a prosecution would not go amiss.

Member

I read about a case recently where a resident applied for a reduction in the council tax banding because it was higher than all the other nearby properties that were the same as his. The outcome was that his banding was not reduced but all the other properties had theirs raised.

Perhaps it is in the verbiage on the back of the council tax bill but councils don’t seem to go out of their way to inform the public about what would qualify for a banding alteration, and being based on 1991 property valuations makes it even more opaque. Councils do, however, check planning consents and building regulations approvals to see whether a property’s value has been enhanced by development and they can apply to the VOA for a revaluation. A lot of people are unaware of the single person council tax discount [25%] although I believe this and other reliefs have to be explained in a leaflet sent with the council tax bill. Perhaps the banding review process is explained there as well – I haven’t noticed.

Member

I believe there should be a very strong case not to let any organisation get involved with official services, such as council tax banding, passport renewal and various others that we have discussed in other Conversations. If permission to provide services is granted then it can be removed if the provider steps out of line.

Member

Yet again the ability to part with money quickly seems to be biting consumers. Given that humans are susceptible to impulse it must be obvious that we are better off having a delay between impulse and payment.

There is an interesting paper on the massive addiction to playing the slot [poker] machines in Australia where the best psychology is being used to abstract money from the susceptible/gullible. And I believe, amazingly, that the same misuse of science is used elsewhere!

Perhaps if people chose only to use cheques and not cards then they would be protected , to a degree, from being flim-flammed. This particularly applies to many elderly as older people tend to grow more trusting, and to those who lack capacity.

The

Member

…”older people tend to grow more trusting”

Are you certain about that? As people age they tend to become more cautious, which might suggest the opposite of being more trusting. But older people, perhaps living on their own if a partner has died and children have moved away, do seek the company of other people. If the person concerned also has limited mobility this can translate to them anticipating any ‘phone call or letter arrival as a way of breaking the monotony of their day.

But I agree that delaying even ephemeral gratification should be the priority.

Member

Ian – Yes I am certain! However that is based on research I have not personally vetted! : ) There has been several research papers reporting on this. This an excerpt from Scientific American:

“The older people get, the more trusting they become—a tendency that can be dangerous because it puts elders at risk for exploitation and abuse. But why does it happen? A new study suggests that older people have trouble identifying untrustworthy faces because of an age-related drop in activity in the anterior insula, a brain region that may play a role in assessing trust and risk.
…………. When the researchers asked a subset of the subjects to perform a similar task while undergoing a functional MRI scan, the older subjects exhibited lower activity in the anterior insula, a small region inside the cerebral cortex (below), than did the younger ones. Although the difference in activity was most pronounced when the groups looked at the untrustworthy faces, the younger subjects exhibited higher activity in the anterior insula than did their older counterparts when they looked at the trustworthy faces, too.
The findings suggest that “the anterior insula is important for assessing trust, period,” explains U.C.L.A. doctoral student Elizabeth Castle, lead author of the study published last December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. The region may be responsible for the positive and negative “vibes” we get about people when we meet them, which may, unfortunately, dissipate with age. ”

The research here is on faces but the effect of seeing faces on TV’s and on-line should be explored. This study explores the matter further with long term studies:
buffalo.edu/news/releases/2015/03/027.html

I think that perhaps both teams need to consider the physiological changes further.

Member

Interesting. Mind you, I have distinct concerns about a doctoral candidate who finishes assertions with “Period”. :-))))

Member

I suspect you’re right about that. The human insular cortex forms a distinct, but entirely hidden lobe, situated in the depth of the Sylvian fissure. It appears that this small lobe, taking up less than 2% of the total cortical surface area, receives afferents from some sensory thalamic nuclei, is (mostly reciprocally) connected with the amygdala and with many limbic and association cortical areas, and is implicated in an astonishingly large number of widely different functions, ranging from pain perception and speech production to the processing of social emotions. In short, most of this is supposition with little hard evidence to confirm the findings one way or another.

Member

So you are saying that old people become “trusting ” but it is not a condition that is attributable to the more moralistic human social conditions that were a part of earlier society and so is built in to many of my generation . I wouldnt trust those figures as a matter of fact I am totally non-trusting due to the change in social codes and the way society is now run (by decree ) young people are “conditioned “now into a set thought pattern co-coinciding with the mass media which is also tightly controlled. Now if you dont like what I am saying then tell me why its all right to make out the old are “not up to scratch ” with modern society ?? and patronise them but I am censured for replying to those comments ,why dont you put up a defense of your argument instead of censorship ?? Why not put the blame where it really belongs ——– (censored )

Member

The research seems to focus on faces? However many scams are verbal without visual clues. My uninformed reaction would be that older people are more mature, wiser, have seen it before, and are therefore prepared to deal with scams in a more worldly way than younger people who are still learning. I accept this may be incorrect. I would accept that as people “age”, in the sense of begin to lose some sharpness of mind they may well fall prey.
I do feel a little aggrieved when some declare that “older people” are assumed to be unable to deal with life, as if once you are past 65 it’s downhill all the way. Perhaps I’m in denial. Or perhaps the new old is 85, not 65?

Member

So I am going “mentally downhill ” -Boll—s !!! my mind is just as sharp as it ever was I will repeat -mental “conditioning ” to defray criticism from modern “business practises ” Its all down to media hype and the hype is working well .

Member

The Intro to this Conversation refers to two elderly people and says “it appears that this company [i.e. the scammers] is targeting elderly people”. From that it has been hypothesised that that is because elderly people are of a more trusting disposition. Of course it might be because elderly people are more likely to be at home in the daytime. Or it could even be that elderly people are well known to be living on tighter budgets, or at least more cost-conscious by inclination, and therefor more pre-disposed towards a scheme that would, for a small outlay, save them a lot of money. I think intelligent scammers might have judged that, for elderly people, a psychological sense of urgency tends to override their natural sense of caution and that, being convinced of their own mental sharpness and annoyed by society’s constant suggestions otherwise, they exhibit a desire to demonstrate their competence by being seen to be doing something that they think would be regarded as a good move.

I wonder what the evidence was for the statement that “it appears that the company was targeting elderly people”. Just because the two known cases referred to involved elderly people does not mean that younger people were not targeted equally and just not known about.

Member

Doing a quick check on line for commercial firms that advertise their services in investigating and challenging council tax bands I only came across one. This firm offers a no-win, no-fee service but charges 35% [excl vat] of any refund obtained which does not seem unreasonable for a professional service. The homeowner continues to benefit from the reduction in the years ahead at no further cost. So far as I could tell there was no element of cold-calling ínvolved – clients have to approach the firm in the first place.

That example is a totally different proposition from the cold-calling scammers, whether by door-to-door canvassing or by telephone, who are pressurising people and not necessarily doing any thing for the money they charge upfront. It’s a bit like the beggars in the street who always ask for a modest amount like 60p when really they would like £20 [who can’t afford 60p? – and you can walk away guilt-free]; asking for £65 to get a council tax banding reduction and refund seems reasonable and draws people into the scam.

Member

John, I haven’t had any need to go through this process but for most people I believe the free process through VOA should be all they need. Even if the case was a bit more complex than just checking neighbouring properties, if you have concluded you have a good case you are probably competent to do it yourself. I wonder just what the commercial firm will do for its money? And I wonder what happens if your band is increased?

Member

I agree Malcolm. And while I was looking on Google to see what sort of activity there was in this field I noticed hundreds of entries from local councils giving information on how to seek a banding review and how they process refunds if the VOA approves a reduction, so local authorities are taking steps to inform council taxpayers of their rights and the process – but they have to know it is possible in the first place of course.

I suspect the commercial firm I found lurking among the local authorities was possibly more involved in higher value properties where the potential gains are greater, could be dealing with more marginal cases concerning enhancements or detriments where their claimed widespread knowledge from across the UK provided more robust evidence than a homeowner might have access to, and might be of more service to commercial property owners.

I presume if the band is increased following a challenge that would not count as a win so no fee would be payable. A bit like the heir hunters and other claims handlers I expect – they take a good look at what they’re stepping into before taking on a case.

Member

I suspect one clue lies in Joe Elvin’s topic header where he says

“Often they’re very persistent and won’t take no for an answer.”

As people become older some can become more reliant on ‘official’ bodies, particularly if they are in any way disabled and living alone. That sense of isolation, combined with a generational regard for ‘officialdom’ which many younger people simply don’t have can, in some cases, lead to them being bullied – something about which we’ve heard too much in regard to care homes. Joe’s mini-case study also showed how it can be combated: by having a supportive family member ready to help when needed. We live in an isolated location, but the few folk living around us all help one another. We all depend on each other, and that’s a fact of life, although it seems less common in urban areas. Sadly, some will always attempt to prey on those that lack support.

Member

Another reason might be that the older generation tend to be more polite and don’t slam the phone down.

I am always uncomfortable with suggestions that older people have generally lost their marbles and are easily fooled. I think many have their wits about them more than some of the younger age groups and they can usually express themselves more articulately. It is so sad that, for many, age has wearied them and the years have condemned them to deceit and exploitation. I am conscious that I am advancing towards the point where I shall be within sliding distance of the edge of the cusp myself before many more years have passed so I take care with generalisations in case they come back to haunt me.

Member

Many recent studies have shown that people’s intelligence does not decline with age, as was once thought to be the case. However, that clearly depends on what level they started out with and “older folk” as a category – as with all sections of society – represent a cross-section of intellects.

Member

If you use the term “losing their marbles ” then you have to stop generalising about it . I have worked in hospitals and seen 50 year olds as you say=losing their marbles why , because they gave up on life they didnt have the drive or determination to fight back mentally against attacks by others or illnesses which not fatal left them handicapped this was not helped by -media again saying if you are older you are “losing your marbles ” . If like one of my cousins a college lecturer who never married but became an alcoholic suffered from frontal lobe lack of blood supply to nerves etc (ie-a type of senility ) due entirely to self-abuse or someone born with degenerative DNA which limits brain activity as they grow old this is inherited but if like me whose mother lived to an old age never -losing her marbles – then that may account for my mental clarity and lack of degeneration. What I am trying to say is that this modern generation likes to “pidgin hole ” or put people into boxes why because it makes them feel more secure but the unconventional person the person who refuses to be “boxed ” is disliked because they dont conform to society . WE are all individuals with different personalities even if many dont admit it but modern society abhors that because it doesnt fit in with the approved worker that business society find acceptable.so many fight to conform and criticise others “not like them ” . This is one of the biggest causes of mental problems in society I have watched group therapy for very intelligent people who had to be sedated because of society criticism some committed suicide in various ways this made me very angry .

Member

The Valuation Office, which sets Council Tax band for all new homes, is at it too! I bought a new house in Beaconsfield in 2013. Chiltern District Council set a “provisional” band G in anticipation of the Valuation Office assessment. This was subsequently erroneously set at band H by the Valuation Office which capitulated when challenged with the facts. These are easy to collect as the banding for other similar properties in any area are in the public domain (Google “check your council tax band”). Download form VO7455 from from http://www.voa.gov.uk.