A local legal advocacy centre has revealed half its unsolicited sales cases relate to solar panels as consumers share accounts of intimidating salespeople, altered contracts and false promises about their bills.
The Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre has said that in the past 12 months 50 per cent of its unsolicited sales cases have focused on solar panels and related financial issues.
It comes after the publication of a report sourcing case studies from three community legal centres, which called for action to deal with dodgy door-to-door and other unsolicited sales.
The Knock It Off! Door-to-door sales and consumer harm in Victoria report raised concerns about the “significant and persistent” detriment caused to consumers by harmful, uninvited sales by door or telephone.
The report made special mention of the solar panel industry, where sales were being driven by anxiety over rising energy costs, limited understandings of products and appropriate costs as well as “access to (often inappropriate) finance which makes the purchase achievable.”
John was ‘shaking and shivering’ and the salesperson would not take ‘no’ for an answer
Of the Knock It Off report’s 19 case studies, 10 focused on solar panel sales.
They included an account from John*, a 72-year-old pensioner from rural Victoria who was sitting on the front porch when a salesperson came up his driveway and started talking about solar panels.
The man let himself into John’s home and spent an hour outlining various features of panels and how to reduce energy costs.
“John continued to advise that he did not want solar panels, but became increasingly intimidated by the salesperson,” the report stated.
“John describes himself as ‘shaking and shivering’ and did not know how to handle the situation.
“John asked the salesperson to leave – but the salesperson would not. He continued to refuse to take no for an answer, and continued to talk John through the paperwork relating to the sales.”
The salesperson arranged paperwork for solar panels and rang a finance company on John’s behalf. John never spoke to the finance company.
Despite advising he could only afford to pay $25 a week, John soon received a letter saying he would have to pay $103.87 per fortnight.
John’s sister contacted a community legal centre, who organised a refund of money paid. John was also able to keep the solar panels.
Hugo* was living in rural Victoria when he was visited by a door-to-door salesperson. Hugo spoke limited English and was given a contract he did not understand.
“Hugo was not given a copy of the terms and conditions of this contract,” the report stated.
Hugo was also not told that he had a 10 say “cooling off” period to reverse any decision made during an unsolicited sale.
“The solar panels were installed at Hugo’s home before the end of this 10 day cooling off period,” the report stated.
“Hugo then fell into financial hardship and defaulted on payments to the linked credit provider. At the point that he defaulted on his payment, he had an outstanding debt of $6738.95. This resulted in the finance company issuing proceedings against Hugo.”
The case was eventually dropped and an out of court settlement reached.
Other case studies included a rural Victorian pensioner who was told she would not receive an electricity bill after the system was installed and ran up a $1364.84 bill; and a couple who believed a salesperson had filled out contracts without their knowledge, eventually leading to debt collectors being called.
Hard-sell tactics creating stress among older people
Jo Kaptein is a project officer at non-for-profit group The Hub Foundation, which runs the MASH bulk buy scheme out of Castlemaine.
While she could not offer a comment on any dodgy practices she may have heard of around the region, she said many people enquiring about MASH’s products and offers were reporting companies door knocking and using ‘hard-sell’ tactics.
She said it could be particularly stressful for older people.
“They are finding them very confusing and worrying … it doesn’t do the solar industry much good,” Ms Kaptein said.
Her group did not advocate door-knock or cold-call tactics.
“Our (goal) is to provide people with as much information as possible, to provide access to us as a non-for-profit,” she said
“So they can call us freely, with no obligation, before they get in touch with our preferred solar supplier and ask any questions they want.
“We wouldn’t want anyone trying to force people in any way to buy a system that was not right for them.”
Reforms needed to protect consumers
The Knock It Off report was published as policy makers turned their attention to unsolicited sales. In August federal and state consumer affairs ministers agreed to look further into consumer protections.
Knock It Off authors would like to see trial runs of a new model in which consumers actively confirm a purchase in the days after the sales person had made their pitch.
That would replace current 10 day “cooling off” periods in which people could reverse their decisions. Authors cited research showing few took advantage of the cooling off period even though it was doubtful they were always satisfied with their purchases.
It was an idea the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre would welcome in Bendigo and surrounds, especially if it focused on solar panel sales.
LCCLC lawyer Nicole Smith said an opt-in model would mean only those who genuinely wanted an item would confirm the sale.
“This model also effectively protects vulnerable consumers who would otherwise be susceptible to high-pressure sales tactics,” Ms Smith said.
She also advocated for action to tackle the ‘interest free’ loans frequently sold with solar panels.
“Many of these payment plans are unaffordable for consumers, and their capacity to pay is not properly assessed,” she said.
“Many of these companies and agreements are not governed by national consumer credit protection laws and are exempt from the protections that usually apply to credit provision.”
Ms Smith said greater oversight of the solar industry could also protect customers.
“As the Knock It Off report notes, just 43 of the 4000-5000 solar retailers are ‘approved solar retailers’ who have undertaken to comply with the code,” she said.
* Name withheld to protect person’s identity