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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
How to switch energy suppliers - without realising
Magazine's search for modern irritants

They come door-to-door, bearing clipboards and promises of cheaper gas and electricity. But with complaints of mis-selling and forged signatures, these callers can be less than welcome.

Competition for customers is fierce
One lunchtime when she was home alone, Sharon Tallent, of Hanworth, Middlesex, answered the door to two men claiming to be from customer services at Southern Electric. They were in fact sales agents keen to sign up new customers.

"I told them I was no customer of theirs. I'd changed suppliers and the company had switched me back without my authorisation, and I'd had a similar run-in with British Gas, so I was instantly wary."

The men tried to look at her meter, telling her that the company owned all the meters in the area, and asked for a bill to stamp. She refused, but the men would not go.

"They were very, very pushy. They were insistent that I needed to show them a bill and they kept coming up with all sorts of ruses to get into my house. In the end I threatened to get my dogs on to them if they didn't leave. I had to slam the door shut in their faces."

Door-to-door sales
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She later found out that the same men had told an elderly neighbour the company was the only authorised supplier in the area, and so tricked her into signing a contract.

"Probably some of my other neighbours too. And with the pushiness of those salesmen, I'm not surprised - they didn't stand a chance."

The consumer group Energywatch has taken the company to task for failing to curb its hard sell tactics, and in March referred its evidence to the regulator Ofgem, which has the power to impose fines.

Southern Electric has said that while such behaviour is unacceptable, it applies only a "very small minority" of its sales people. Those found to have breached its code of practice are dismissed.

Nor is it the only company to garner complaints - almost every gas and electricity company has been guilty of mis-selling, says Energywatch spokeswoman Hazel Parsons. Their incentive? Money. "Agents work for either a very low salary plus commission, or they are on 100% commission."

Dodgy deals

Since 1998, customers have been able to shop around for their energy, and today one in three energy sales are made on the doorstep. But since de-regulation, there have been complaints about unscrupulous sales agents.

As many as 1.4 million Britons have been left fuming after such a visit, according to a nationwide survey of nearly 9,000 householders by the Trading Standards Institute.

Energywatch receives about 400 complaints a month about doorstep sellers, down from a high of 2,000 in April 2002. These include:

  • agents forging signatures on contracts;

  • tricking consumers into signing what turns out to be a contract to switch suppliers;

  • intimidating behaviour, such as shouting through the letter box, pushing into houses, or abusing the householder as "stupid" for not saving money.

But the government is cracking down on mis-selling. In 2002 agents for London Electricity and its affiliate Virgin Home Energy were found to have used information from people who had died or details from the electoral register to fill out bogus transfer forms. And more than 1,000 people had their signatures forged.

Gas ring
Savings can be made by switching
The company was fined 2m and apologised to its customers, saying it had taken steps to prevent its sales force from using such tactics again. The number of complaints has duly fallen.

Ms Tallent, for one, says the way to curb "doorstep rogues" is to ban the practice.

"If you want to change suppliers, there are plenty of ways to find out what's available and how to switch. You don't need a door-to-door salesman to explain it to you."

Information on suppliers is available through Energywatch, and through accredited services such as uSwitch which offer free, independent advice on which companies suit best.

And if a doorstep seller comes a-calling? Ms Parsons says not to sign anything - or give any personal details - unless sure you want to change suppliers.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My elderly grandmother did not sign anything during such a visit, but received a bill from the new supplier. I was told that she had made a verbal agreement, when she had not done any such thing. She did not have long to live and was not in a fit state to be harassed by these issues. More needs to be done to prevent this exploitation.
Dave P, Wales

My sister-in-law had 2 of these people call a few weeks ago. She went to the door with her baby and they fired a tirade of sales jargon at her. She said "pardon?" and the girl sneered and said "Hello? are you on the same planet? no, you're up the M4 somewhere."
Gemma, East Anglia, UK

Spare a thought for those doing this work. A lot are simply people in need of a job, and if done politely it is honest work. I spent two years going door-to-door to support my family in Canada, and you have to screw your courage up to knock on those doors. The vast majority of people chose to be pleasant, and the savings can be real.
Richard, Canada

I was the victim of a bogus switch. A salesman who I had never met switched me to another gas supplier, presumably by forging my signature. The new supplier repeatedly promised to reinstate my previous supplier, but never did - and then threatened to send bailiffs to collect supposedly unpaid bills. I wrote in desperation to the regulator, at which point the company finally backed down.
Andrew Smith, Epsom, UK

I was door stepped last night. I explained that we'd researched it thoroughly and changed suppliers less than 6 months ago, but it took an amount of forcefulness on my part to get the door closed. How easy it must be to prey upon those who can't stand up for themselves.
Janey, UK

A doorstep seller asked me to sign a declaration to get a price list by post. I queried why he needed a signature, and he beat a hasty retreat. I have an elderly neighbour who rarely answers her door because of people like these - I let her know she can call me if she needs any pushy salespeople shown the door in a more "persuasive" manner.
John B, UK

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