The elderly are particularly vulnerable
Door-to-door cold calling by tradesmen offering home repairs and improvements should be banned, trading standards officers have urged.
According to the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), as many as 2.4 million people have had problems with people passing themselves off as tradesmen over the last two years.
Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous traders, and some have been duped into losing their savings.
The institute said continuing problems reported by elderly people, in particular, meant harsher penalties were now needed as a deterrent.
Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the institute, said: "Up and down the country householders have been ripped off for large amounts of money by unscrupulous criminals passing themselves off as roofers, gardeners and property improvement businesses.
"Often using false names and addresses, they leave distressed, bewildered and frightened people with little or no chance of redress."
Even though many people have experienced problems, there can be a reluctance to report cases to the authorities.
Mr Gainsford said while consumer education was useful, vulnerable elderly people needed to be properly protected from the professional experienced conman.
"We need firm action and that is why we are calling for a outright ban on property repairs," he said.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the UK's trading watchdog, is currently conducting a wide-ranging investigation into doorstep selling, on which it will issue a report later in the year.
Among the options available to the OFT, it could make recommendations to government to tighten up existing laws.
Over the past three months, almost two-thirds of the people surveyed by the institute said they had been visited at least once.
One in five said they had received three or more calls from salesmen.
Richard Nowacki, from Trading Standards, said: "They seem to have this unerring expertise for picking on vulnerable people... getting into their psyche... persuading them to have work done that is not needed, or for which they grossly over charge."
While tradesmen offering property repairs and home improvements were the biggest problem, the second biggest problem was energy sellers.
WHAT DO THEY TRY TO SELL?
General property repairs
The Trading Standards Institute said as many as 1.4 million people may have experienced problems with energy salesmen over the past two years.
The institute, however, does not believe in making cold-calling by energy salesmen a criminal offence as the industry is working hard to address any problems that exist.
Ann Robinson, chair of the energy watchdog Energywatch, said: "The TSI survey highlights the distress that cold-calling abuses cause and we urge any consumer who has suffered as a result of energy rip-off agents to contact Energywatch."
Why don't we just compile a register of addresses where people don't want tradesmen to call? A bit like the address equivalent of the Telephone Preference Service and the Mail Preference Service? I get really annoyed by charities calling in the early evening when I'm upstairs bathing the children and it's a major nuisance to answer the door if you're in by yourself.
I work as a Rural Community Warden for Kent County Council and regularly come across rogue traders and doorstep sellers. The fear that is felt by the vulnerable members of the communities that we look after is huge, they feel intimidated and pressurised by pushy tradesmen and unclear pricing.
Tessa Bedwell, UK
Last year an energy salesperson knocked at my door. He spoke very little English and caught me at a bad moment - I found myself letting him into my home and could not then get rid of him. The only way I managed to get him out of my house was to sign up to the contract he put in front of me. As soon as he had left I complained to the company and cancelled the contract. I consider myself to be an intelligent person - but just was caught off-guard for a second. Never again.
Not all of the cold callers are criminals and conmen. This legislation will stop the genuine tradesmen (the man who reliably cuts my trees every year), and not prevent those who are already operating outside of the law.
Both gained access to these houses
Last year, students living in our area were targeted at a time when, to coincide with the start of the academic year, representatives from numerous companies and services were visiting houses with the specific target of naive students - many of whom had not lived away from home before. At the same time, local criminals posing as cold-callers - including some posing as being from an electricity provider - both gained access to these houses and managed to gather sensitive and bank information from unwitting house owners.
Andrew Silke, UK
I reckon that this proposed ban should extend to telephone "cold-calling". It is just as intrusive and un-welcome.
We have lived in our current house for 7 years and in that time we have replaced all the windows and exterior doors using more than one company. Every couple of months or so we used to get a call from one national company as "an existing customer" with a special offer. Despite repeated statements that we had nothing left to replace, the calls kept being made. Finally, one salesman offered details of a freephone number to be removed from their lists. This appears to have done the trick.
Stephen, Hants, UK