Mon, 24 Feb 2020
A ROGUE trader who preyed on elderly Thatcham residents tried to milk his vulnerable victims for thousands of pounds.
And after fleecing one couple, a court heard, he then ‘gaslighted’ them – slang for manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
After overcharging, double-charging or carrying out shoddy work, the 26-year-old was shocked when West Berkshire Council’s trading standards team swooped as he was working on one of his victim’s home in Thatcham.
In the dock at Reading Crown Court on Friday was James Fenton of Old Stocks Farm, Aldermaston.
Lucy Conroy, prosecuting, suggested Fenton had deliberately targeted those he considered elderly and vulnerable.
She said Fenton was working for his family’s firm, which was then named Fascia Lines, with his brother Shane and his father – neither of whom are implicated in his crimes.
Ms Conroy said Fenton ‘cold called’ Mr and Mrs X (who the Newbury Weekly News has decided not to name), a couple in their 80s who live in Trefoil Drive, Thatcham, and offered to carry out repairs to their home for £5,000.
But when the time came to pay, the court heard, Fenton said he would need £5,000 for his brother as well, while failing to inform them they were entitled to a ‘cooling off’ period in which they could have cancelled any agreement.
Luckily, the bank intervened when Mr X tried to withdraw such a large sum and when Fenton returned to complete the work, he found trading standards officials waiting for him.
An expert estimated that work completed was worth just £810 and said it was of such poor quality it would have lasted just a few years instead of the quarter-of-a-century he would have expected.
Fenton also preyed on Mr Y of Ashman Road, Thatcham, the judge was told.
A quote for £750 was accepted for Fenton to undertake work on his home.
Ms Conroy said that, upon completion, Fenton suddenly doubled the price.
She added: “Mr Y, perhaps because of his age, wrote a cheque and didn’t challenge it.
“Mr Fenton then proposed further work... charging £1,000 if Mr Y paid instantly, otherwise the price would rise to £2,000.
“Experts said £390 would have been reasonable [for the work proposed].
“Mr Y refused the offer but Mr Fenton came back on two further occasions to offer further services.”
Ms Conroy concluded: “The age of the victims is an obvious aggravating factor; there’s an element of sophistication – changing quotes halfway through and effectively ‘gaslighting’ them into thinking they had mistaken the quote.”
Fenton admitted two charges of fraudulent trading in August 2018.
Andrew Storch, defending, said: “He has never been in trouble before in his life.
“He has now started his own business and he is really trying hard to do this right.
“He has changed his procedures considerably and now gets counter signatures on estimates.
“He would be devastated by being sent to prison, as would his former partner, with whom he remains on amicable terms for the sake of their five-year-old daughter.”
Mr Storch concluded: “This is a man who has learned his lesson.
“If Your Honour considers this crosses the custody threshold, it’s absolutely crying out for a suspension.”
Judge Edward Burgess QC said: “In my judgement these offences betray a rather unscrupulous approach to business practice.
“I don’t accept it was simply irresponsible and reckless.
“Certainly in the case of Mr and Mrs X the quality of the work was substandard.
“You applied pressure to both your victims in relation to payments.
“Tactics deliberately employed by you to get more money from them than the work deserved – and I think you knew that full well.”
Each charge carried a maximum of two years imprisonment, the court heard, but Judge Saunders said: “In your case I believe the interests of justice are best served by suspending the sentence.”
Fenton was sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months.
In addition, he was ordered to carry out 100 hours unpaid community work.
Finally, Fenton was ordered to pay £1,500 compensation to Mr Y and £500 costs.