'Cowboy builder' accused of £440k scam and 'leaving trail of destroyed lives'

Wendy Craig, 66, says she was was scammed by a cowboy builder.
Wendy Craig, 66, says she was was scammed by a cowboy builder. -Credit:Wendy Craig/PA Real Life

A Devon-based builder, Steven Gent, has been accused by at least 30 people of conning them out of more than £440,000 for incomplete construction work over a period of more than 15 years. The group, who mostly wish to remain anonymous, claim they were scammed out of a total of £442,665 by Mr Gent, who allegedly operated under various company names and aliases.

Mr Gent was first reported to the authorities in 2009 and on numerous occasions since then, but according to Wendy Craig, 66, from Preston, South Devon, they have been "useless and done nothing". Ms Craig is calling for new measures to register and monitor construction workers, fearing that Mr Gent's case is merely a "drop in the ocean" and some builders are being allowed to commit fraud on an "industrial scale".

Trading Standards have confirmed that Mr Gent is currently under investigation following a "number of complaints".

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Ms Craig, who paid Mr Gent £7,000 to renovate her garage in September 2021, described him as a "con artist" who has left a "trail of destroyed lives" behind him. Feeling "angry and desperate", Ms Craig decided to set up a "name and shame" Facebook group for her local area and soon discovered dozens more people complaining about Mr Gent.

"Mr Gent has left a trail of destroyed lives, homes that have lost value and desperate homeowners who do not know where to turn for help," Ms Craig told PA. Ms Craig has been comparing stories and has managed to piece together what she calls Mr Gent's "playbook".

She explained that he presents himself well, offers to start work immediately, and then demands a deposit. Once the work begins, he asks for further payments before suddenly cutting off all communication and disappearing. Upon closer inspection, his completed work often needs fixing, costing thousands of pounds more.

Between 2007 and 2023, Mr Gent was associated with nine companies, all of which have now been dissolved. These include Ocean Construction Devon Ltd, Gent & Son Building Contractors Ltd, Broadsands Building Contractors Ltd, Bay Build Ltd, Torbay Build Ltd, Transformations SW Ltd, Gent Enterprises Ltd, Torbay Beach Hut Company Ltd and SOB SW Ltd.

Ms Craig also revealed that he used several aliases, including Martyn Evans, Steve Ringmore, Steven Taylor, Andy Styles and Mike Jones, to cover his tracks. Those who have lost significant amounts of money have reported Mr Gent to various authorities, including the police, Trading Standards, building control and Torbay Council, as early as 2009. However, Ms Craig said they have been "useless and done nothing".

"You try everything to recover your money," she added. "You report it to the police and are told they can't help because it's a civil matter. Then you contact Citizens Advice and are put through to Trading Standards who again say they cannot help."

At her wits' end, Ms Craig took her case to the Torquay and Newton Abbot County and Family Court, with Mr Gent being ordered to payout £12,416.48 by June 5, 2023. Regrettably, she's yet to receive a single penny.

Joining her is Sidney Rose, a 73 year old retired school teacher, who spoke to PA Real Life about his experiences, having been coerced into resuming work after falling victim to Mr Gent's scam, which cost him £30,000. Sadly, he and his partner, 73 year old Catherine Beetham, had to mortgage their terraced Edwardian home in the hopes of making it more accommodating for their later years.

However, they allege that under the guise of White Rock Building Services, Mr Gent swindled them out of their money before leaving their home and garden in utter chaos. Reflecting on the distress caused, Ms Craig told us; "This is not a big corporation that owes money to a poor individual.

"The issue is rather an individual causing financial harm due to fraudulent practices," she added, stating: "This is about an individual who owes us money because he ripped us off."

Expressing exasperation with the entire process, she voiced out; "The whole system that I have had to deal with is just so ridiculous." Implying taxpayers' invested funds are being used poorly, she added; "If that's what British tax payers are paying for, they are being robbed."

In response, Steven Gent mentioned to PA: "They are unproven allegations and Wendy Craig is currently under investigation by the police."

Commenting on the developments, a representative from the Heart of the Southwest Trading Standards Service said: "We have received a number of complaints regarding Mr Gent and we are investigating. Members of the public who feel that they have been unfairly treated, misled or owed money by a tradesperson are entitled to pursue a civil court claim and in the first instance they should contact Citizens Advice Consumer Service who will be able to advise further."