Beware persistent scammers pushing home energy checks

For the last three weeks, Sondra Biggart has received some 15 calls from a telemarketer she wishes would just go away.

Despite registering on the Do Not Call list and telling the marketing company she's not interested, they keep calling. They call her home phone. They call her cell phone (she doesn't know how they got that number).

"My husband was getting surgery, and the damn phone rings, and it's them," said Biggart, who lives in Largo.

She says they have used the name "Energy Reduction Group." That is the name of an energy conservation company that helps Mid-Atlantic businesses reduce their consumption. But the company does not do telemarketing.

In a statement posted on the company's website, Energy Reduction Group said it became aware of the problem just days ago and has alerted authorites.

"There is a scam going on in Florida," the company website states. "Energy Reduction Group deals with very large energy users in the Mid-Atlantic States with annual energy spends that start in the $100,000 range and go into the millions. We do not use telemarketing, and whoever is using our business name is doing so without our consent."

The calls come from what the state says is a growing pool of companies offering free home energy checks.

Your utility company offers free home energy checks (which are not really free, but we'll talk about that later). But the telemarketers who offer the deals sometimes even go as far as to say the utility "authorized" them to do so.

Don't believe them.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received a court order in February to shut down one of the companies, Sun Energy of Florida, for violating the Do Not Call laws.

Here's how it works:

The telemarketers begin by offering the "free" home energy check. When consumers accept the offer, the telemarketer sends someone to their homes. During they energy check, the salesman typically tries to sell a solar hot water heater that can run as much as $12,000.

The salesman tells the consumer they'll get a chunk of the money back because the federal government is offering a rebate for installation of new energy efficient products. Then he will press the consumer to finance the purchase.

Sterling Ivey, a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman, said these companies have been cropping up all over the state and have generated hundreds of complaints.

"They're even calling folks who are on the Do Not Call list," Ivey said.

People such as Biggart are among them.

She says they sometimes use local area codes from the pay-as-you-go cellphones, such as Tracfone, which prompts her and other consumers to answer, thinking it is a personal call rather than a telemarkter.

"I'm being harassed, and I don't like it," Biggart said. "I'm becoming afraid to answer my phone."

Ivey said people need to file complaints with his agency and they'll work to shut down the company for violating the Do Not Call laws, just as they did with Sun Energy.

The other problem, though, is the offer itself.

Utilities such as Progress Energy Florida and TECO, offer home energy checks. They do the checks at no additional cost to consumers. But truth be told, we pay for the service in our bills as a fee, folded into other costs.

The inspections — which can be done online, over the phone (by telling consumers how to check their homes themselves) or in person by a technician — are performed by employees of the utility companies, not third parties.

And they don't call you to offer the free inspections.

"We don't do outbound calls," said Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy. "I suggest to customers that they need to tell the caller to take them off their list and make sure you're on the Do Not Call list."

Progress Energy has received complaints about the telemarketing calls and issued a warning to customers in December about the problem.

The telemarketers who called Progress customers were "extremely persistent and sometimes threatening," Grant said.

So here's the Edge:

• Get a home energy check from your utility. It's a good idea to have an assessment of your home, but avoid telemarketers who make the offer. The service is being paid for by utility customers anyway. Avoid any high pressure sales pitches, even from the utility, which might offer a home wiring repair plan.

• File a complaint. If a telemarketer is violating the Do Not Call laws, file a complaint with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services at www.800helpfla.com/complnt.html#reg or 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352).

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Beware persistent scammers pushing home energy checks 04/29/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 12:57pm]

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