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Death of the door-to-door salesman: Householders urged to blow whistle as trade body seeks a ban

It was once the housewife's burden: answering the front door to a steady stream of smiling, sharp-suited salesmen touting anything from encyclopaedias to Avon moisturising cream.

But in the face of competition from internet and with fewer people at home all day, the "direct-selling industry", as it is euphemistically known, has struggled to stay alive.

That challenge became even tougher yesterday when the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) proposed banning door-to-door sellers operating in one of the most lucrative areas of the market: property services.

After a year-long investigation, trading standards officials warned that rogue "tradesman" offering services from roof repairs to double-glazing were exploiting an unregulated sector while cashing in on the housing boom.

Under legislation proposed by the institute, householders will be encouraged to blow the whistle on the unwelcome visitors who could face arrest or even imprisonment for repeat offending.

The call comes after a year-long survey of 9,000 householders published today by the TSI in which two-thirds of respondents complained of receiving unsolicited calls in the previous three months. Of the 21 per cent who agreed to buy a product or service, more than a quarter said they were unhappy with the outcome.

Almost all of those polled – 95.7 per cent – backed a ban.

Stuart Pudney, a spokesman for the TSI, said: "We have targeted the property-services sector because our research shows that criminal gangs are operating in this area. They frequently target the most vulnerable people, often robbing them of thousands of pounds."

Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the institute, said: "Reports, leaflets and codes of practice are all positive means of educating consumers, but if we are to protect the vulnerable elderly person from the professional experienced conman we need firm action and that is why we are calling for an outright ban on property repairs, maintenance and improvements cold calling."

The Office of Fair Trading is investigating doorstep selling and is expected to propose new controls in a report due to be published in the late summer.

Although under pressure, doorstep selling is still a significant moneyspinner. It employs 520,000 people, 70 per cent of them women, and is worth around £1.7bn a year, according to the industry body, the Direct Selling Association.

Its mainstays are double-glazing and other home improvements, disability aids and gas and electricity – all of which have been subject to recent scrutiny.

But names once associated with a friendly presence on the doorstep have already abandoned direct selling, portraying the decision as an inevitable result of social change.

The insurance company Prudential said 95 per cent of its customers dealt with it over the phone or through the internet and it was time for the "Man from the Pru" to hang up his trilby. The Britannic, another insurer, announced two years ago it was laying off a direct sales staff of 1,600 because the middle to low-income families who bought insurance at home were high-maintenance and low-profit.

Supermarkets have replaced such traditional doorstep figures such as the brush salesman. Over the same period mailshots have replaced sellers of encyclopaedias and magazine subscriptions. The bleak future is compounded by the growing number of two-income households where nobody is at home during the day, and the increasing reluctance of people to open their door to strangers.

In recent years Avon, which once mobilised an army of "Avon ladies" has turned to department store concessions, emails and texting, although the company says doorstep sales are still taking place.

There has been a struggle to protect the public from doorstep selling, as new gaps in the market are exploited by unscrupulous operators. The watchdog Energywatch was established after deregulation of the gas and electricity market to deal with rampant mis-selling. Chairwoman Ann Robinson said: "Consumers are fed up with the scandalous antics of energy sales agents. The Trading Standards report is a wake-up call to energy suppliers. Companies must get their houses in order and put a stop to this scandal."

Under a separate scheme householders can avoid the nuisance of cold telephone calls and junk mail by signing up to a list of addresses companies are prohibited from contacting.