Organised crime used to be the occupation of highly unattractive individuals from deprived neighbourhoods full of dysfunctional poverty ridden families.
One of the most lucrative schemes these criminals dreamed up was the ‘protection racket’. This entailed a bunch of thugs wandering into other people’s premises – a pub, or restaurant for example – and simply demanding money in return for not smashing the place up or beating the owner up and putting him in hospital.
Most people soon learnt it was better just to pay the regular demands for cash because it was the only way they could stay in business.
Persistent resistance to the menacing extortion often led to murder as the thugs sought to terrorise everyone else into compliance with their demands.
Modern times have opened up exciting new possibilities for slightly more sophisticated methods, rather than just brute violence.
Big business has learnt a few lessons from the old fashioned protection racket scam and crafted a more modern version which has the huge advantage of carrying absolutely no risk whatever of going to prison for being a criminal.
There are many examples of this form of legalised theft, but consider this particular one. It is very common.
My Potterton gas boiler was ill. It had been ill ever since I bought this house five years ago – despite the fact it was virtually new. Apparently, Potterton were knowingly supplying brand new gas boilers to people all over the country which were faulty from the very moment they were installed.
The problem was the circuit board. That little bundle of inscrutable electronics that controlled the turning on and off of the boiler when the water was at the right temperature. It would either fail to turn the boiler on at all, or, once on, be unable to turn it off.
This meant the hot water tank rapidly overheated, reached boiling point and boiling water and red hot steam would zoom into the roof, overflow out of the header tank and down through all the ceilings in the house one after another, wrecking plasterwork, decor and carpets and any other valuable possessions that might be inconsiderately lying around in your house at the time.
When the damned thing gave up the ghost completely and refused to fire up at all, just as winter became a fair simulation of the frozen arctic, leaving us with freezing cold water and a house like a hovel in Siberia, I finally tried to get the thing repaired.
That was when I learned about the new, modernised form of protection racket gleefully seized upon by the likes of Potterton and British Gas.
Big organisations like British Gas and Potterton have a virtual stranglehold over the entire market, just like all the other large companies that either take over every local enterprise or simply drive them out of business. They are basically the only people you can turn to for repairs.
So when I failed to find a local heating engineer who wasn’t a complete cowboy, I was reluctantly forced to turn to Potterton, being the makers of the boiler, as a hopeful source of reasonably reliable repair.
Bingo ! “No problem sir. Our first available appointment for an engineer is for tomorrow. Would that be suitable ?”
Would it be suitable ? I was in a state of pathetic gratefulness for the amazing speed with which my inanimate boiler could be repaired and warmth restored to the household once more. My nine year old son would no longer be in danger of dying from hypothermia or pneumonia as he dragged his grey, pinched and frozen body wearily through the cold and wintry house , clutching a duvet around him wherever he went.
But, there was a catch. There would be a fixed price of £349. There would be no other options. So, even if the repair took five minutes and a part costing only a few pence it would still cost £349. As the entire boiler cost only about £1000 brand new, it would be quite impossible to imagine any ordinary repair that was likely to cost as much £349.
So, being a single parent existing on a below the poverty threshold income, I thought this was ludicrous. This repair was going to cost me the equivalent of three weeks entire income !
I turned to British Gas. They couldn’t send an engineer tomorrow but they could manage the next day. That looked promising. I wouldn’t hold the extra day’s delay against them. It was still pretty prompt. Prompt enough, anyway.
Then came the crunch. The cost ? £444 fixed price only, the same as Potterton, but just another hundred pounds more, nearly.
Both of these extortion artistes wrapped these huge repair fees in gobbledygook language which seemed to use the word ‘protection’ quite a lot – just like the old fashioned criminals selling ‘protection’ from them smashing the place up as long as you coughed up the regular weekly payments they demanded with menaces.
Except the genius of British Gas and Potterton is that all they have to do if you don’t pay their extortionate demands is, well, err…. nothing. Yes, all they have to do is absolutely nothing. That means you and your family will simply freeze to death because it will be impossible to get anyone else to repair your boiler, because that is the way the manufacturers arrange it. They are the sole source of specialised parts, for instance.
So, I was forced to return to Potterton, being nearly a hundred pounds cheaper than British Gas at £349 instead of some £444.
When the repairman called he took just ten minutes and cheerfully described it as a complete rip off. The actual cost of the circuit board he simply replaced was just £100 before VAT. Charging the repairman out at £50 an hour would make the bill no more than £150 instead of £349 or British Gas’ incredible £444.
A forty hour working week charged at £50 per hour is two thousand pounds a week or £104000 per year. Enough to pay the repair man his salary of less than thirty thousand pounds a year and still leave the company with a whopping profit.
However. the repairman told me he did an average of five repairs like this a day. At £349 each that is a daily total of £1745 or a staggering total of £453 700 per year. Yes, that’s nearly half a million pounds !
Good money for those that get it ! Shame about the single parents on poverty levels of income shivering with cold as they no longer have any money left at all to pay for fuel to use in their now repaired and working central heating boilers.
Consumers need protection from this sort of extortion which is a creeping menace today as big business becomes increasingly bigger and bigger and more and more out of control as it rampages through our wallets with dishonest and evil impunity.