JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Michelle Thompson and her husband were looking for more options to save money during the pandemic. They found a flier on their front door promising big savings on their electric bill and called the company for more information.
“They sent someone out,” she said.
That salesman made all sorts of promises, she said.
“That our energy bill would be really, really low, and there would be tax credits and, I guess, rebates at the end of the year,” said Thompson about the promise of reducing her monthly electric bill by installing solar panels. “It made it seem like we would, it was a win, win all around.”
Thompson said the salesman told her the company would install the panels but would cover the cost for the first year by paying $15 per month. Thompson thought when it was time to start paying after that year, the cost would remain at $15 per month. She wasn’t concerned about the small additional cost because she said she expected her electric bill to drop significantly once the solar panels were installed. But she said that never happened.
After the first year of no savings, she noticed her credit score was dropping.
“They hit my credit in August by 50 points. They hit my credit in September by 98 points and then another hit in October,” she explained. “Now I’ve worked hard for my credit score and so for that to happen it really devastated me. So I called them and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we were financing your solar panels.’ I’m, like, ‘OK, well who are you and why don’t I know about this?’”
Thompson said she had no idea the salesman who sold her the solar panels had also used her electronic signature to approve a loan with a third-party lender to buy the solar panels, which were more than $25,000. After the first year, the lender started reporting Thompson’s lack of payments to the credit bureau, even though she never received any kind of bill. Little did she know, the $15 she had expected to pay monthly was now $250 per month.
Thompson called Jacksonville Area Legal Aid for help, which offers free legal services to the public. Senior trial attorney Lynn Drysdale took Thompson’s case and discovered the paperwork that should have notified Thompson of the loan she was unaware of had never been sent to Thompson.
Drysdale said she has talked with several local homeowners who have been misled or defrauded by different door-to-door solar panel salespersons.
“People don’t know to ask to look at these documents because they are being told it is not going to cost them anything. So they do not know to ask that there is going to be a second and hidden part of the transaction that they are not aware of,” explained Drysdale.
During our interview, Drysdale said that she has just spoken with another homeowner, an elderly man, who had been promised a big reduction in his electric bill if he agreed to have solar panels installed. Drysdale said the homeowner had a nightmare experience.
“When they came out to install the panels, they stepped on something in his attic, so he has a hole in his ceiling. They did something to his roof, so now he has holes in his roof and in so doing they messed up two pumps from his irrigation system. The water from that messed up his air conditioning,” she said. “So not only do you have the misrepresentation about what the panels can do, how they will affect your finances, how they will help you, how you will pay for them, they are causing damage to people’s homes and they’re not doing anything about it.”
She said in each of the cases she has represented involving solar panel installers, none of the customers has seen a dramatic reduction in their electricity bill.
While not all door-to-door sales of solar panels are misleading or fraudulent, Drysdale said, you should know your rights before you ever enter into a contract with anyone selling you something at your front door. First, Federal Trade Commission laws and Florida home solicitation sale laws dictate that a borrower must be given copies of their Right to Rescind immediately upon signing a door-to-door sale. Second, a consumer must be given three days to provide written notification of their decision to exercise their right to cancel that transaction altogether. This three-day period does include Saturdays. Third, if the transaction is handled through electronic signatures, the provider must determine if you have a valid and working email address and send the documents you have signed to the consumer immediately.
“Oftentimes we see transactions where the company selling the equipment also is seeking financing on your behalf without you knowing about it,” said Drysdale. “When the financing side of the transaction becomes apparent well after the sale, the consumer finds out that an electronic signature was applied by the door-to-door equipment sales company representative without their knowledge or consent.”
She continued, “If the financing agreement creates a lien on your home, you also must receive the three-day right of rescission at the time you sign the financing documents. Also, you should receive very specific information about the costs of credit like interest and fees which would be charged in the loan, prior to signing the loan.”
Thompson said she will never purchase anything from a door-to-door salesperson again and wishes she had done more research before agreeing to have solar panels installed on her roof. Drysdale has successfully negotiated with the finance company to temporarily suspend the $250 per month payments Thompson has been charged. Drysdale warns elderly people and people who do not speak English as a first language are often the target of deceptive door-to-door sales.