Doorstep broadband sharks exploit lockdown to trick homeowners

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Rogue salesmen working with Britain’s biggest utility companies are putting vulnerable customers at risk by flouting coronavirus rules, Money Mail can reveal.

An undercover investigation reveals the sinister tactics used by door-to-door sellers to coax their targets into switching providers.

With no regard for safety, salesmen were filmed routinely defying Government guidance to enter people’s homes – some with underlying health problems – without wearing masks.

Hard sell: Salesmen were filmed routinely defying Government guidance to enter people’s homes – in order to coax their targets into switching broadband providers

Last night energy and broadband firms including BT, Octopus, MoneyPlus Energy, EE, Talk Talk and People’s Energy – who used the services via a third party – described the tactics as ‘unacceptable’ and stopped using the companies exposed by the Mail. 

Our investigation reveals:

  • Salesmen for a firm called Money Expert used the name of Money Saving Expert guru Martin Lewis to flog their deals;
  • Agents were filmed using deceptive techniques to sign up customers — which included showing homeowners outdated news articles about their energy provider being under investigation;
  • Customers were presented with potentially misleading comparisons to give the impression they had more to gain by switching;
  • Staff from the firm broke guidelines to enter homes of customers with health conditions without wearing masks;
  • They shamelessly asked customers to lie if asked and to claim sales reps had worn masks, maintained social distancing and not entered their homes.

Undercover reporters applied for a graduate management training programme at the firm Roar Ambition in Liverpool and a graduate marketing assistant position at Infinity 7 in Birmingham. 

The firms operate as part of a network of companies working for Money Expert — a comparison service to help customers switch energy and broadband providers.

The reporters were invited for a Zoom interview with company CEOs Jamie Talbot and Adam Qureshi, who boasted of opportunities to work with ‘global brands’ and company trips to the Dominican Republic and South Africa.

The companies operate by sending salesmen to knock on hundreds of doors each day – completing ‘laps’ of a designated area.

Salesmen are given a script to learn and told to build rapport with customers before inputting their details to reveal if they could save money by switching energy, TV or broadband providers.

Shocking: A salesman breaks Covid restrictions to enter the homes of the elderly without wearing a mask

Shocking: A salesman breaks Covid restrictions to enter the homes of the elderly without wearing a mask

Shocking: A salesman breaks Covid restrictions to enter the homes of the elderly without wearing a mask

Every time a customer agrees to change providers, Money Expert receives a fee from the company and gives a portion of this to the marketing firm. 

Managing directors such as Mr Talbot and Mr Qureshi take a 40 per cent cut — and between £16.50 and £36 goes to the sales agent.

While working at Infinity 7 from October 19-23, an undercover reporter shadowed four colleagues in Leicester, Birmingham, West Yorkshire and Wolverhampton.

A reporter also worked at Roar Ambition from September 8-10 where they were trained by the now director of North Star Promotions Adam Johnston and another salesman in St Helens and Rossendale, Lancashire.

Salesmen were seen using consumer champion Martin Lewis’s name to encourage customers to switch energy companies.

Two salesmen were witnessed telling targets that Mr Lewis, founder of Money Saving Expert, had endorsed a specific provider.

Mr Lewis has slammed the salesmen for ‘leeching’ off his name.

‘I’m very thankful for the great work the Mail has done on this investigation,’ he says.

‘It’s deeply frustrating that these salespeople try to leech off my reputation to flog their wares.

‘I do not recommend energy companies, I recommend specific tariffs that change all the time.’

Mr Lewis says he regularly gets complaints about door-to-door salesmen who people mistakenly think are working on his behalf.

‘Anyone who knocks on your door saying I recommend them: they are liars, don’t touch them with a barge pole,’ he adds.

Sales representatives said on the doorstep they were representing the company Simply Switch, which is owned by Money Expert.

But they did not ask customers which energy tariff they were on when comparing prices.

This meant comparisons shown were against a company’s standard tariff — which is almost always a provider’s most expensive option — and could give the impression of greater savings.

The boss who likes to boast from Bahamas 

By Jim Norton and Susie Coen

Posing with luxury cars, Rolex watches and in exotic locations, he flaunts his wealth on social media.

So with coronavirus slamming the brakes on his extravagant holidays, it is not surprising marketing CEO Jamie Talbot is keen to resume normal life.

Mr Talbot, managing director of Roar Ambition, was filmed telling a room full of new recruits that customers were sick of coronavirus and no one ‘really gives a s*** about it’.

Roar Ambition CEO Jamie Talbot regularly shows off his luxury lifestyle to his 4,000-plus followers on Instagram

Roar Ambition CEO Jamie Talbot regularly shows off his luxury lifestyle to his 4,000-plus followers on Instagram

The Stafford-born entrepreneur, 31, who claims he earns £250,000 a year, was speaking to a team who had travelled up from Birmingham to Manchester, which was then under the very highest lockdown rules.

Dozens of staff — none of whom wore a face mask — spent two hours in a small hot, stuffy, and windowless room to discuss the day ahead. With music blaring from speakers to gee staff up before hitting the streets, many had to shout at each other and squeeze past to get through the cramped room.

Asked by the undercover reporter how to deal with customers when they mentioned coronavirus, Mr Talbot said: ‘I don’t think anyone gives a s*** about it. I think everyone’s sick of it.’ He added: ‘We’re out in the open, so as long as you keep your distance and don’t go into houses, I don’t think you’ll have an issue.

When the undercover reporter said he had met two pensioners the day before who had not left the house since lockdown, he said: ‘If they don’t give a s***, man, then no one else is going to care, are they?’

Mr Talbot regularly shows off his luxury lifestyle to his 4,000-plus followers on Instagram. He owns an Aston Martin, a Rolex watch, and has shared pictures of him partying in Ibiza and even proposing to his girlfriend in the Bahamas last year.

Mr Talbot told Money Mail the comments about coronavirus could have ‘been part of an informal conversation where people were expressing frustration at the situation and taken out of context, but is absolutely not company ethos’.  

Mr Lewis says this is ‘outrageous and incredibly misleading. There will be many people who, if you’re switching on a standard tariff comparison when you’re not on a standard tariff, will end up paying more, not less’.

Money Expert says it never ‘passes itself off as any other business’. Mr Talbot says his agents are trained to show their ID and introduce themselves as company brand Simply Switch to avoid confusion.

The biggest energy suppliers no longer sell door to door after a series of fines from regulator Ofgem.

In 2013, SSE was fined £10.5 million for ‘prolonged and extensive’ mis-selling of gas and electricity. Customers had been given misleading statements, inaccurate information and misleading comparisons.

But a resurgence of face-to-face selling before the pandemic prompted fears of a new mis-selling scandal.

How to stay safe

  • Always ask for ID. Make a note of the salesman’s company, their name and contact details. 
  • Most sales people only sell for one supplier, so they will be able to offer you deals only from that supplier. However, some switching sites also pilot direct sales and may offer you deals from a range of suppliers. 
  • Have your bills to hand so you know your tariff name, how much energy you use and how much it costs you. 
  • Don’t be pressured into signing anything. Discuss it with family and friends. 
  • Check contract details on cancellation and whether you have a 14-day cooling-off period. If not, steer clear. 
  • If you are worried you may have been mis-sold a deal, call Citizens Advice on 0808 223 1133.

The number of energy switches from face-to-face sales in the year to October 2019 rose 38 per cent to 1.1 million, according to energy research firm Cornwall Insight.

Mr Talbot says: ‘I train my agents always to ask the customer what tariff they are on to see if we can save them money.’

Mr Qureshi adds: ‘A lot of people are on standard variable tariffs because they haven’t switched before, or a deal they had ended, so we can save them money. The call centre calls the customer up and gets them to confirm the exact tariff.’

None of the five salesmen observed by reporters wore a mask – including Mr Qureshi, although he and another salesman wore them pulled down to their chins.

Two salesmen broke Money Expert policy – and Government guidance -to enter the homes of vulnerable customers.

On Friday, October 23, our reporter was trained by one of the top salesmen at the Manchester office, North Star Promotions.

The salesman had driven from Liverpool to Manchester – both of which were under strict Tier 3 lockdown restrictions. After meeting in a small, stuffy office with no masks or social distancing, they drove to Mixenden, West Yorks. 

Yet despite households being banned from mixing indoors, the salesman did not wear a mask and was seen going into at least four houses.

On at least two of these occasions, it was at the suggestion of the salesman, who offered to show residents – including an elderly couple – how to find their rates on the smart meter inside.

The salesman also invited himself into the terrace house of an asthmatic woman. While inside for ten minutes, the woman explained that she hadn’t even let her friends inside and that two people who live in the neighbourhood were in hospital with Covid-19, one on an incubator.

Neither household agreed to switch. However, the salesman was later spotted sitting on someone’s sofa and coming out of a fourth house – both of those did.

Several weeks of good sales – including earning £1,100 in one week – had seen the aeronautical engineering graduate top of the nationwide sales leader board. 

Two salesmen broke Money Expert policy - and Government guidance - to enter the homes of vulnerable customers

Two salesmen broke Money Expert policy – and Government guidance – to enter the homes of vulnerable customers

But he appeared to use misleading techniques – including showing customers a BBC report that their energy supplier was under investigation by Ofgem.

Later, he told the undercover reporter the article was, in fact, from 2016 – he had just covered the date with his thumb.

The same salesman had to train a reporter in the Liverpool office on September 9. After driving from Merseyside to Rossendale, Lancs, they spent eight hours knocking on doors.

In a bid to make sales, he went into the homes of a man in his 70s with Type 1 diabetes and another of a 78-year-old man.

Both customers had invited the salesman inside. He was also seen making up an email address for the 78-year-old grandfather – even though this is against Money Expert guidance. 

The elderly customer said he did not have an email address, which is needed to complete a switch, so the rep found an unused address online and asked him to memorise it.

While training at the Liverpool office, the reporter was also told to tell customers there have been ‘complaints’ in the area over energy charges, despite having no evidence.

On October 20, an undercover reporter observed another salesman from the Birmingham office – who had been in the role for two years – entering the properties of a 62-year-old with severe health problems and an elderly widow.

He did not ask to go into either of the two households – but did so when invited. He wore a face mask pulled down below the mouth.

Salesmen were filmed routinely defying Government guidance to enter people's homes - some with underlying health problems - without wearing masks (stock picture)

Salesmen were filmed routinely defying Government guidance to enter people’s homes – some with underlying health problems – without wearing masks (stock picture)

Another representative from Roar Ambition encouraged the reporters to go into customers’ homes, claiming punters will ‘lie for you most of the time’. 

Telling the reporter he had been into two houses the previous day, he added: ‘If you step in someone’s house, you’ve probably closed the deal. If you do go into someone’s house, tell them: ‘If the call centre mentions it, let me off’.’

James Daley, of consumer group Fairer Finance, says: ‘Door-to-door sales is never a good thing. You don’t want to be rude [to the person at your door] but there are hundreds of pounds at stake if you make the wrong decision.

‘It’s worse in the Covid era. Most people are at home at the moment, so it is a paradise for unscrupulous salespeople. The energy industry is incredibly complicated, but it is easy to make it look simple and for people to switch to companies that may not save them money.’

Last night, Octopus Energy, MoneyPlus Energy and People’s Energy thanked the Mail for its investigation and suspended their relationship with Money Expert, saying the practices were ‘appalling’.

TalkTalk says it is reviewing its relationship with Money Expert.

Money Expert in turn severed its relationship with the three firms, Roar Ambition, Infinity 7 and North Star Promotions.

Money Expert says that it is ‘shocked and appalled by the allegations of breaches of its strict sales code of conduct and our coronavirus protocols’.

It adds: ‘Our rigorous procedures appear to have been seriously breached in this instance, and we are sincerely sorry for that.

‘Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and the safety of those who work on our behalf.

‘We will not hesitate to sever all ties with any contractors who put that safety in jeopardy, or to take legal action against them.’

It says it has suspended all its door-to-door operations nationwide while it gives extra training to prevent further breaches.

‘We thank the Daily Mail for bringing these allegations to our attention.’

BT and EE, which both work with Money Expert, says: ‘Neither BT nor EE have a direct relationship with any of the companies in question, but our third-party supplier has immediately suspended work with them while they investigate the claims.’

Roar Ambition CEO Mr Talbot says he has extended the office to ‘cope with coronavirus protocols’ and said entering customers’ homes is ‘absolutely against guidelines’ and that he would be investigating the issues raised ‘immediately’.

Mr Qureshi says he works from a serviced, sanitised office and staff ‘must sign a strict Covid-19 policy’ stating they will wear PPE, keep a two-metre distance and not enter customers’ homes. He disputes the claims made by the Mail but says he will investigate.

North Star Promotions did not respond to requests for comment.

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