Copier cowboys attacked by CBI

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COWBOY photocopier salesmen are driving small firms out of business because they fail to spell out the full costs of contracts, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

The CBI said the problem was acute for companies that were unfamiliar with small print in contracts and were already squeezed by the recession.

The CBI has attacked the practice of offering gimmicks such as free photocopiers with a set rate for each copy. The customer may find that he or she is required to pay for exorbitant numbers of copies a month but cannot cancel the contract, which might run for up to nine years.

One tactic is to offer existing customers renewed contracts with lower copy prices or an upgraded copier.

The unwary customer could find that other charges have suddenly increased or that the number of copies on a take-or-pay basis has soared.

Other tricks used by suppliers include escalation clauses increasing charges such as those for service and toner by 12 per cent to 15 per cent a year.

Judith Vincent, the CBI's head of company law, said: 'People are ringing in despair when they find themselves locked in contracts costing thousands of pounds. They have no legal redress.

'With businesses not being considered consumers under the Consumer Credit Act, they are unable to break the contract when they realise what they have signed,' she said.

The Campaign to Clean up Copier Contracts (CCC), a lobby group set up February by one victim, is to print a blacklist of firms offering unfair agreements. It has received complaints from businesses as well as churches, charities and schools.

Paul Winner, the campaign director, said that these customers were soft targets and considered fair game in the current competitive climate.

His survey uncovered one company that had two copiers with a combined retail value of pounds 10,000 but a five-year contract that would cost pounds 95,000.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth is faced with a contract on which it will now have to pay pounds 14,000 to buy itself out half-way through the six-year lease.

The CCC has issued guidelines to guard against the problem. Firms using copiers are urged to take legal advice, to delegate one senior person to negotiate and sign contracts, and to avoid giving personal guarantees.

The forthcoming blacklist will detail photocopying firms that deviate from a code of practice provided by the British Association of Print and Copyshops.