Solar scams alive and kicking in Australia

Despite the flat market outlook, new solar companies continue to appear. And if ever there was a proof point that solar scams have ebbed to a new low, it was last week.

The headline might appear a little alarmist but yet again, I find myself personally caught up in helping consumers navigate through solar scams.

It seems that despite (or perhaps because of?) the industry downturn, new solar companies continue to appear. Why anyone who was tuned in would want to start a solar company from scratch in the last 12 months is beyond me; prices are down, margins are down, volumes are down and only the strongest are surviving.

I don’t want you to think that I think it’s all doom and gloom, because it’s not. But with the current climate, one can be sure we are facing a deep dip in the solar-coaster ride. We’ll get through it like we have before but only if we pay close attention to details and do solar intelligently.

Conversely, if there was ever a proof point that solar scams have ebbed to a new low, it was last week. A close family member called me after being door-knocked. It all started out well because she likes Amway products and was happy to buy a few new knick-knacks from the sales man. However, at the conclusion of the sale she was hit by this surprise from Mr Smooth “Hey, your electricity bills must be sky-high like mine, right?. You know I can help you with that too?”

A very brief sales pitch ensued with no information handed over at all except a promise of savings and a stunning deal. And they were fast. Within an hour or so an email arrived saying “Thanks for your confirmed order for a 2kW system using Tier 1 solar panels. We are now preparing to install, have commenced the grid connection application and, when approved, will 'grandfather' you under the existing generous government subsidy program in case the government decide to scrap this program “

Now to the unsuspecting, this could seem like amazing service. However, even to my family friend the alarm bells started ringing. Although they politely did not want to hassle me, they were in a panic that they had been duped into a deal with zero information, nor product information, nor confirmation of the actual benefits ... and so on.

Cue, call Nige.

So first, I get them to email a cancelled order – no written response.

Then I decide to look into the company.

Hmmmm. High street address in downtown Sydney – impressive.

ASCIC check –  business name registered around 10 months ago.

Web domain check – registered at the same time by a gentleman who runs a swathe of marketing companies (at the same address no less).

So I ring the number of the (apparent) parent company. After being diverted several times to several international numbers I finally get through to a lady who denies all knowledge of all companies I had names for and was perplexed that a 1800 number would ring through to her. Never heard of them; must be a wrong number “Oh wait, I think I have XXXX solar’s number here”. But turns out she didn’t. Hmm.

So I jump on their website. Turns out, unbeknownst to everyone else in the solar industry, that I can get 10kWh a day from a 2kW solar system in Sydney! Wow! Also turns out that they don’t know the difference between kW and kWh, according to their information. Although they list a lot of good solar products on their website, some of which are Tier 1, the quote we got was very different.

But wait! They have free information! Says I can download an awesome e-book on solar, for free! So I try, but nothing downloads.  Yet it did get my phone ringing – from a totally apparently unrelated company. Another lady. Another data collection exercise. Although she sounded like she was talking from inside a garbage bin and smoking 200 Camels a day, she politely asked: “Did you get your book that you ordered from us?” “I didn’t order a book from you, I ordered a book from XXX solar and, no, I didn’t get it”. “So sorry, we’ll get one to you as soon as possible,” she says.

Cue; give us all your details. Again. That’s another telemarketing database I’m on which will drive my wife mad, no doubt.

So I decide to call the 1800 number for XXX solar. It diverts through three overseas numbers and eventually lands at a voice mailbox with an American accent. No company details, no names, no operator to assist, no nothing.

I’m starting to think I have been conned by a weird hybrid of Homer Simpson’s infamous AT-5000 Auto Dialer and a rogue Amway guy.

The above are not the only scams of heard of in recent times.

There is also a company out there claiming to have Australian made solar panels available, made in Brisbane, and yet they aren’t listed on the Clean Energy Council site and a quick call to the CEC confirmed that they have not applied to have an Australian made panel approved.

There is also a company out there who is ringing around claiming to be from a variety of solar companies, seeking information and data – which has nothing at all to do with those companies.

There are a few lessons in this:

1) Good companies can survive and prosper, but you need to work extra hard

2) Feel free to share this story on your websites to warn customers that this stuff still happens.

3) Never stop believing that con-artists will keep coming at us.

4) Be honest, open and transparent and you will stand out from those who aren’t.

5) If you hear about stuff and can substantiate it – contact me and I’ll publish news on it when I can.

Nigel Morris is director of Solar Business Services

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