Lack of consumer protection or recourse for Singaporeans who lost thousands to interior design scams

The excitement of getting new furniture and renovations for their homes turned into a terrible experience of frustration and cheating for several couples who were swindled out of thousands of dollars by a furniture company.

Located in the Tan Boon Liat Building, a furniture shop named SOS—sometimes called Collective Living, Prestige Modern Space Living, Teak & Co—trapped several couples who were eager to furnish and upgrade their living space by cheating them out of tens of thousands of dollars and delivering shoddy work.

All these cases involve the same company and sometimes even the same person, named Ben or sometimes as Brandon Toh.

While it may seem on the surface like a simple case of a company delivery bad work, the method it has employed in conducting these dealings point to a deeper, darker story.

Several couples swindled

One woman shared a story earlier in August 2020 about this furniture store on the Facebook group “SG Blacklists Profiteering Retailers”. In a series of screenshots, she notes how she visited the furniture store on the 14th floor of the Tan Boon Liat Building, called SOS.

A salesman named Ben or Brandon who claimed to be boss told her that the sofa she purchased could arrive in a month, on 1 March 2020. However, it never did. She messaged him on 5 March to follow up and he simply said that he would revert back to her.

Messaging him again about 20 days later, she received no reply. That’s when she decided to call. He then told her that the furniture would arrive on 1 April as there was a shipment coming in.

A few days after that on 6 April, still no sofa. When asked, he said that the sofa had arrived but the delivery man couldn’t get through to the customer to make the delivery. The woman said she didn’t get any missed calls at all.

Once the Circuit Breaker was implemented in April, nothing could be done. So she waited until June. When the sofa finally arrived, it was not to the customised measurements requested and the cushions were the wrong size.

In a different case, a woman “Lene” shared the story of how she and her partner were cheated out of S$5,000 when they were out shopping for furniture for their first new house.

In a post on the site in November 2020, Lene noted that the store had overcharged them for their deposit—charging S$5,000 instead of the actual amount of S$1820—but refused to refund the excess. When they requested to cancel the order entirely and get a full refund, they got nowhere.

For over eight months, the couple have yet to be refunded.

Lene noted in her blog that the store became uncontactable after the refund form was filled, and that when they went to the store to ask for an update, they were referred to the company’s office.

Oddly, the company doesn’t actually have an office. Lene notes in her post that the furniture store is not a company name that exists. The parent company P+ Capital Pte Ltd, on the other hand, only has a virtual office. However, that virtual office doesn’t handle P+ Capital.

The couple was also given a phone number of Ben who they were told to contact about the issue. However, Ben has blocked their number.

The couple have filed a police report on the matter as well as a claim with the Small Claims Tribunal which has ordered the furniture store to make a full refund.

There have been several other similar cases like this involving this furniture store as well as the person named Ben—some of which involved over S$40,000, and shoddy renovation works which require major rectification.

One person paid Ben to do some interior designing and renovation work on their home in August 2020, costing roughly S$86,000. They’ve paid up about S$60,000 so far but the work is not even nearly up to par.

Ben had apparently agreed to refund the woman S$20,000 on 2 February this year but she hasn’t received a single cent.

She also found out that he hadn’t obtained a permit to conduct the renovation works, meaning that she had to apply for it herself after he had already started.

Another woman has hired the company for renovation works as well and purchased some furniture from them. However, he had made a mess of the carpentry and wet works. She terminated the contract.

However, she had already forked out roughly S$26,000 for the works including about S$8,000 for furniture which was delivered to the house while the renovation was ongoing.

Yet another person who hired this name found that he has just dismantled her cabinets, stuck some stickers on it to make it look new and reattached it. His shoddy work extended to using glue to attach tiles and neglecting to do water proofing works where needed.

He also installed tiles without letting them choose their own designs, saying that he will take care of everything.

Laws not enough to protect consumers or provide avenues for redress

A common thread in all these stories is also that this Ben person is quite sneaky in how he deals with his ‘clients’. Several people pointed out how the furniture is delivered right in the middle of renovation works and in a way that leaves the couples with no option but to accept the furniture. They are unable to inspect or test it.

Once the furniture is received, they are less likely to be able to claim ‘fraud’, as one lady point out. This leaves them with fewer options to go after the people involved.

To add another layer of frustration, while police reports have been made by those who were cheated, the police are not exactly treating these cases as a cheating but merely a “dispute”.

This is where the furniture delivery tactic comes in. Once the furniture is delivered, the victims can’t quite claim that they have been cheated since they did receive furniture. It then becomes just a dispute on the furniture that was delivered—in terms of dimensions, quality, etc.

Now, TOC understands that this Ben person is involved in a few other corporate disputes as well.

We also understand that the person in charge of these stores, Ms Lou Zou Yee listed as the director of the company, has not been called in for questioning by the police.

TOC did visit the store and asked to meet with the person involved. However, the person was not there at the time. Despite several attempts to reach out, we have been unable to get in touch with him for a response on this matter.

At first glance, the company appears to be a legitimate furniture store specialising in teak wood furniture. They even attached ‘SOLD’ labels on some of the furniture in the store, selling the idea that the business is doing well.

But closer inspection reveals that the labels are actually quite old. It’s nothing more than a farce.

One victim shared that they trusted him and the photos he sent as reference of his past work seemed legitimate at first glance. However, in hindsight, she recalled that he had never explicit claimed that the photos were of his own work.

In fact, a close look reveals the photos to be that of showrooms and the work of other interior designers. He was merely passing them off as references but careful not to explicitly say it was his.

The victim also recalled how insistent he was on making payment via cash, bank transfer or PayNow, claiming that credit cards would incur a 7 percent GST.

Many of these victims note how difficult it is to get in touch with Ben, especially once they begin to doubt his work or demand a refund or termination of contract. When they do manage to get hold of, he piles on excuses, doing all his to avoid refunding them. Sometimes, he downright just ignored them.

Several of these victims have made police reports against Ben and the company but to no avail. They also attempted to seek redress in the Small Claims Tribunals. As the case of Lene, we know even that is not useful as Ben can just avoid paying them the amount the court ordered him to do.

These cases, and many like them, highlight how Singapore’s consumer protection laws are not powerful enough to protect them. It also shows how little efforts are being made to help those who have been scammed.

Lack of active enforcement and deterrence by authorities and agencies in Singapore to protect consumers

And these are just the tip of the iceberg in Singapore. TOC has reported on similar cases in the past.

Earlier in 2014, we reported on how 13 families were cheated by an interior designer who misrepresented his former employer, took their deposit for renovation work and disappeared with work left half done. The interior designer would accept the renovation jobs from the families, take the deposit, start the “renovation” work by hacking up the floor, and then disappear, leaving the family with a bare uneven concrete floor which they sometimes have to put up with for months.

However, the police had initially classified these as civil cases and did not record them down. The police then advised the families to seek legal redress. The case was only classified as cheating after the families banded together to insist that the police file their cases.

Unfortunately, even with an investigation officer being assigned to the case, not much was done to update the families at the time.

It seems that the burden is on the victims to file civil claims against the company that cheated them while the police treats the matter as a commercial dispute between a willing buyer and a seller.

The victims in these cases have filed complaint to The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) but the agency will do nothing more than register their complaint and write a friendly letter of demand. In rare cases where police takes active steps, it is after the case goes public.

For example, like the case of the Vietnamese tourist who was cheated out of his money at a cellphone shop in Sim Lim Square back in November 2014.

CASE had received over 25 complaints from the public between August to October 2014 prior to the incident with the tourist, yet no action was taken in regards to the shop in question.

It was in 2015, that five men related to the now-defunct Mobile Air Pte Ltd, including its former owner Jover Chew, were detained over a series of cheating cases at Sim Lim Square.

Despite police reports were lodged against the company for alleged unfair and dishonest sales tactics, with customers complaining that they were coerced into buying mobile phones and in-house warranties at inflated prices due to hidden terms and agreement in the sale contract, both the Police and CASE only took action after the video of the poor Vietnamese tourist begging on the floor went viral.

Back to this case, Lene approached CASE and asked them to list this company’s address as a company alert list. In response, they said that there needs to be a lot of complaints against the company before they can put the company up. Lene asked, “how to, when they can change (their company name) everyday?”

So as a buyer and consumer, you have to always be cautious because you cannot rely on the police, CASE, or even the small claims tribunal to get your money back once you’ve been cheated out of it. The best bet at getting some form of justice, may be very well be having your story heard in social media.

 

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