Simon Read: Doorstep sellers must not be allowed to get away with dodgy deals

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The Independent Online

Dodgy doorstep sellers were issued a legal warning this week. Surrey Trading Standards successfully prosecuted the energy giant Scottish and Southern Energy for misleading selling practices. In short, one of the company's salespeople knocked on doors with a sheet of paper which he claimed showed that people were overpaying on their energy with a rival supplier. In fact the print-out showed no such thing.

"The seller didn't actually have a clue but the sales script was cleverly designed to put potential customers on the back foot and to open the door to a sale," explains Steve Playle, the Surrey County Council trading standards officer who led the investigation. "Energy supply by the big six firms is obviously highly competitive but it is a complex market with hundreds of different tariffs that make meaningful price comparisons quite difficult."

Unscrupulous salespeople often rely on bamboozling people with bogus facts and figures to scare them into signing up for what could well be a bad deal. Talking to people on their own doorstep often catches them unawares, and particularly forceful salesfolk can badger people into buying something without them really realising.

You're never going to stop people trying to sell door-to-door but there's a world of difference between some chancer trying to flog a few clothes pegs and a slick sales person tricking someone into signing a deal which could leave them hundreds of pounds out of pocket. The energy industry has been notorious for dubious sales ever since deregulation meant that suppliers could compete against each other across the country.

"Misleading doorstep energy sales have been a nightmare for consumers for years, leaving many switching to a worse energy deal," according to Audrey Gallacher, head of energy at Consumer Focus. "This verdict has revealed a deliberate tactic by SSE, not the behaviour of a rogue salesperson. It should make all energy companies look long and hard at how they sell on the doorstep. If there is one thing that will drag the reputation of a company or market through the mud, it is deliberate and wilful mis-selling to consumers."

And yet still it goes on although, to be fair to SSE, the mis-selling occurred in 2008 and 2009. The sentencing of the verdict in the Guildford court will take place on 27 May, and is likely to see SSE fined, according to Consumer Focus. Hopefully it will be a significant amount, at least enough to send a clear warning to the rest of the energy industry and others that use dubious doorstep sales tactics.

"Energy firms have had years to sort out this issue and yet consumers are still misled and tricked on the doorstep," says Gallacher. "The verdict sends a clear message that they must clean up their act on sales scripts and revise their pay and incentives system for salespeople to make sure that customers can rely on an honest and fair service on the doorstep."

I'd like the Government to go further and ban doorstep selling of costly financial arrangements. Until that happens we must all be wary of that knock on the door.

Group buying schemes are appearing on an almost daily basis, but their offers are increasingly looking less than attractive. The idea behind the schemes is simple: they negotiate discounts with different companies and suppliers in return for delivering hundreds of customers. All you do is sign up for the schemes and start receiving daily emails offering half-price meals or other offers.

That all sounds good until you discover that your email inbox is full of deals that actually aren't all that good. While it's easy to simply delete them, they can quickly get annoying. So I was interested in an Advertising Standards Authority adjudication published this week on one of the giants of the group buying industry, Groupon.

The firm, which has a global presence, published internet ads with unlikely offers. One stated: "All you can eat in London for £3," while another featured "XXL – Bouquet of Flowers in London" and showed a bouquet of roses with a price tag of "from £8".

The ASA concluded that the ads were misleading as such offers weren't available. Groupon has now withdrawn then, but the practice is designed to persuade you to sign up for a service that may prove to be nothing more than an annoyance.

I'm reserving judgement on these schemes. We all like a bargain, but I suspect that many of the group buying schemes are simply selling "discounts" on products and services that may otherwise be hard to flog. I'd be interested to hear your experiences.

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