Feds shut down solar marketing scheme

Solar panel on the desert

Stock Photo

via Moak: Hucksters market solar panels, clarionledger.com, 3/16/2016

There’s a lot of interest these days in solar and other alternative energy sources. As consumers have looked for ways to lower their energy bills, solar energy has long been touted as a key component in the nation’s energy future. However, in the decades since solar energy has been part of the discussion of America’s energy future, development has been slow. (I remember writing a paper about solar energy back in high school about 35 years ago.)

The price of solar installations is still beyond the reach of many consumers and often still outweighs the potential cost savings. That fact, coupled with falling energy costs of late, have presented constant challenges to the growth of the solar industry. Still, there is increasing demand and interest in “rooftop” solar systems.

That demand makes consumers vulnerable to hucksters. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an operation that is accused of “bombarding” consumers with millions of recorded calls, which allegedly alarmed consumers by telling them there was “urgent” news about their energy bills, but they were really just a way to generate leads for companies selling solar systems.

According to the agency, defendants Francisco Salvat and his companies illegally made more than 1.3 million pre-recorded calls to consumers with phone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, warning them that they needed to act quickly to avoid a coming spike in their electric bills.

“Mr. Salvat’s companies ignored the Do Not Call Registry and made illegal robocalls,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Breaking the law isn’t a great way for a company to introduce itself to potential customers.”

If they answered the robocalls, consumers were given the option to “push one” to lower their energy bills, which then transferred them to a telemarketer who tried to sell them on an expensive solar panel assembly. If they agreed, the telemarketer would schedule an appointment with a private solar company, selling the customer’s information to them in the form of a sales lead. However, the FTC claims that problems arose when consumers’ request to be taken off the call list were ignored.

The FTC is seeking a federal court order permanently barring the defendants from the allegedly illegal conduct, as well as civil penalties for their alleged telemarketing violations. The Department of Justice filed the complaint on behalf of the FTC in a California U.S. District Court against KFJ Marketing, LLC; Sunlight Solar Leads, LLC; Go Green Education; and Francisco J. Salvat, individually and as an officer of each of the three businesses.

The businesses are charged with violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by calling consumers whose names are in the national Do Not Call registry; continuing to call consumers who had requested no further calls; and making illegal robocalls. The complaint requests civil penalties, relief for consumers, and a court order to bar the activities in the future.

If you’ve had similar issues, you can file a complaint with the FTC here. Legitimate solar energy companies abide by a set of ethics called the SEIA Solar Business Code, which guides how they will sell and market solar systems. For more information and advice on solar systems, check out this column I wrote back in November.

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