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Central Japan lawyers flushing out plumbers over exorbitant fees to unclog toilets

A file photo of a toilet bowl (Mainichi)

NAGOYA -- Cases of people being charged outrageous fees by plumbers to unclog toilets and other pipes are increasing across Japan, prompting professionals at the Aichi Bar Association in central Japan to form a legal group to warn the public.

    In some cases, jobs advertised as starting at 780 yen (around $7.50) have ballooned into bills as high as 1.5 million yen (about $14,380). The newly formed legal group is responding to queries about how victims of toilet trickery can get their money back.

    According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, among the plumbing issues they were approached about, the number that specifically related to toilet problems totaled 550 in fiscal 2013. This figure more than doubled to 1,150 in fiscal 2019, and as of Sept. 13 this year, the center already had fielded 647 such inquiries since April.

    The legal group formed by members of the Aichi Bar Association has been approached over 12 cases since August. All of them involve customers who used a website listing contractors, and the amounts they were asked to pay ranged between 400,000 yen (about $3,835) and 1.5 million yen.

    The site says that work can be taken on from "a base fee of 780 yen." The victims are left disoriented when they receive bills for an unimaginable amount, but they are then often told, "If you pay today, there's a 20% discount," and consequently, many hand over the cash on the day.

    In August, a woman who lives in a rented apartment in the city of Nagoya was told by a worker who had fixed her blocked toilet, "If we don't change the pipes across the whole apartment building then it'll cause problems for people around you here. Normally it would cost you millions of yen, but if we do it now, I can do it for you for 400,000." She paid them around 390,000 yen (about $3,740). In September, another woman who lives in a house in the same city had water overflowing from the pipes in her kitchen sink. She called a number on the site for hiring plumbers. The worker who came told her, "Your pipes outside also need fixing." They then asked for 1.5 million yen, which she gave them.

    The legal group consulted with other plumbing professionals regarding the cases, and concluded that the amounts being asked for were remarkably higher than typical market prices for the services. The group is going ahead with preparations to launch civil complaints seeking damages over the exorbitant fees.

    A representative of the company that manages the website responded to a request for comment from the Mainichi Shimbun, saying, "We take very seriously reports of trouble on our service, and we are cooperating in our response with lawyers. We wish to refrain from making further comment."

    The consumer affairs center said, "In the past, workers used flyers in mailboxes to bring themselves to customers' attention, but now many people use their phones to find ads online and hire someone's services." They urged caution, saying, "Consumers should get quotes from a number of service providers, and if you receive a request for an excessive fee, indicate a willingness to pay, but do not do so there and then."

    Shinji Ishikawa, the head of the legal team, said, "The problem is that there are service providers that make it look like these piping jobs can be done at a low price, and then take advantage of a pressured situation to start the work without giving people time to think."

    (Japanese original by Shintaro Iguchi, Nagoya News Center)

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