We receive a lot of complaints from members of the public demanding that we do something about people cold calling at their doorstep. Dealing with these types of complaints is frustrating and a bit of a waste of time. Part of the problem is councils are reluctant to admit they cannot or will not do something – therefore we end up spending ages trying to appease the complainant rather than just being straight and telling them we can’t or won’t be doing anything.
What is the law on doorstep cold calling?
The law is very simple:
- It is not illegal to cold call on the doorstep
- Councils have absolutely no powers to stop cold callers
If you don’t like it then complain to your MP and try and get the law changed, Trading Standards only work within the laws and environment that politicians create – we cannot create our own laws.
The current coalition government is very business friendly and as a lot of business is generated through cold calling they would never make cold calling illegal. As far as they are concerned, the need for businesses to make money overrides mis-selling or people being disturbed.
When will Trading Standards get involved?
Trading Standards may get involved if there is mis-selling or there is some sort of aggressive practice (i.e. the same business keeps coming back after they have been told to go away).
Of course our involvement would be to protect the consumer from misleading or aggressive sales practices – not to protect them cold calling in general.
I say may rather than will because different Trading Standards have different approaches to dealing with doorstep issues. Some put lots of resources into it and some just tell people to go to the Police because they do not have enough staff to do anything about it.
Is cold calling a problem?
To the average member of the public cold calling is no doubt a nuisance, but to Trading Standards it is a serious problem – probably much of a bigger problem than most people expect. The reason is that a lot of mis-selling happens on the doorstep. This is because consumers can often be pressured into agreeing things that they would not normally agree to when someone is standing on their doorstep. Legislation exists to allow consumers to cancel most types of contracts they enter into on the doorstep.
The biggest problem is in home maintenance and improvements – things like driveways (block paving and tarmaccing) gardening, tree cutting and roofing. The problems are generally to do with people being pressured into contracts, receiving poor quality work and being charged excessive amounts of money.
More recently we have received a lot of complaints about energy sales – for example the sales of solar panels. The most common issue there was salesman exaggerating the savings that the consumer would make from having the solar panels.
Energy sales switching is another issue – consumers being misled or confused into changing energy suppliers. A well know case on this Surrey Trading Standards v Scottish and Southern Energy.
I am absolutely sure the next major scandal will be doorstep selling of the Green Deal – which thankfully has not really taken off yet. The Green Deal is extremely complex for the consumer to understand and for Trading Standards to try and pick up the pieces when it will inevitably go wrong in instances where there has been mis-selling will be a pain.
So what do councils do?
The work councils do to combat cold calling are purely voluntary:
- Education – we discourage people from buying goods or services on the doorstep. This reduces the risk of people getting ripped off. The less people that buy on the door the less profitable it becomes and so hopefully the whole concept dies out.
- Door stickers – door stickers that say things like ‘No Cold Callers’ can be provided to householders. The purpose of these is to empower the householder to simply point at the sticker and say ‘no’ to the cold caller. They do not have any legal standing and a cold caller is not breaking any laws by ignoring the sticker.
Of course, because these stickers always have the logo of the council on them they lead to people complaining to the council that they are not effective.
- No Cold Calling Zones – these are roads or areas where (most) residents have agreed they do not wish to be cold called. The idea is that every household (or most) will display a sticker and collectively refuse to engage with cold callers and that should act as a deterrent to cold callers.
These zones can be effective but setting them up can be resource intensive and time consuming. Councillors (politicians) tend to like them because they are seen as initiatives that aid in protecting people. I am dubious about whether they are worth the hassle – mainly because we get a lot of complaints from people moaning about cold callers in their No Cold Calling Zone. It is not illegal to cold call in a No Cold Calling Zone – so we end up spending a lot of time having to tell people we cannot do anything about their complaint.
Should cold calling be banned?
In my opinion yes – a lot of issues (relevant to Trading Standards) arise as a result of calling – usually in relation to things like drive ways and, gardening, roofing. I would ban cold calling for anything to do with home improvements (including energy sales). This would not only save members of the public from a huge number of cold calls but also severely restrict the amount of mis-selling that goes on.
Why hasn’t cold calling been banned?
As I have said, the Government simply won’t allow it.
The Trading Standards Institute published a survey in 2003 which suggested 95.7% of people said they did not want doorstep cold callers.
The Trading Standards Institute published a further report in 2003 calling for a ban on cold calls for the supply of home improvement services (the area where there are traditionally the most problems). The report is a good read if you want to know a bit more about rogue traders.
The Office of Fair Trading Also published a report in 2004 on the issues around doorstep selling.
In 2004 there was a bill in Parliament to ban cold calling for property maintenance but it never became law. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmbills/028/2004028.htm
Why do businesses continue to cold call?
Simple – it works.
Even though businesses know people get annoyed will cold calls they still do it because it makes them money. The only way it will die out is if people stopped buying on the doorstep.
We regularly get queries or requests for help from people who have signed up to something after a cold call and want to cancel – even those with ‘no cold caller’ stickers and those that live in ‘No Cold Calling Zone’. It tends to be that people often change their minds very quickly – which fits in with the idea that people will make a decision they wouldn’t normally do when someone is on their doorstep – this may be because the cold caller is pressuring the consumer or because the consumer puts pressure on themselves.
I have lost count of the number of times we have had people contacting us saying ‘I don’t normally buy from cold callers, but……..’.
I can also understand why cold callers ignore ‘no cold calling’ stickers – quite often the householder will agree to buy something from them – so they may as well chance it. So in that instance the council has provided the person with a sticker – they have ignored it and still entered into a contract – and then they want out help sorting it out.
You can see why it can be frustrating even bothering with all the hassle of producing the stickers and trying to educate people sometimes…..
As I have alluded to, home improvements are a particular area where we have problems and this is often down to the cold callers being very good at persuading people into things. I do have sympathy for some victims of these types of people because quite often they are vulnerable in some way (e.g. elderly).
Politician, religious callers and charities
These three groups are distinct from general businesses.
Politicians and religious callers are not businesses so would not be caught by Trading Standards laws. I doubt there are many (or any) councils that have an official policy of discouraging either of these types of callers – it would be too sensitive. I can just imagine the fuss a local councillor (or prospective MP) would kick up if the council an area for which they were trying to get elected discouraged them from canvassing through cold calling.
Charities looking for donations would be classed as businesses – but again I doubt many councils have a policy of discouraging the public in engaging with these groups – you can just see the headlines – ‘local council discouraging people from donating to homeless charity’.
Of course when I say discourage I mean in the advice we give out to people or put in our publications – as you are aware we cannot stop any of these types of callers anyway.
There are some other laws that are somewhat relevant to cold calling –they are to do with the licences that cold callers may need – these will be issued by the local council (and in some instances the Police). The licences don’t have anything to do with cold calling as such but clearly those with licences may then go on to cold call.
- Pedlars licence – a pedlar is someone who sells goods and is on the move.
- Door to door collections – a licence is required to collect charitable donations (e.g. money or clothing). Although many charities are exempt from this requirement. It also appears that this requirement does not apply to commercial collections (e.g. private companies collecting clothing bags).
- Street collections – a licence is required to collect money or sell articles on the street – again this applies only to charitable collections.