SAN DIEGO — A man unexpectedly knocked on my aunt’s door this month and presented an iPad with her name, birth date, address and the cost of her monthly home security bill.
He confirmed that she was still with her current alarm company, and quickly asked if he could come inside to take a look at her set-up. The salesman said he was there to “upgrade her system” and “lower her bill.” His friendly demeanor, apparent knowledge of her account and the language of his offer led her to believe he worked for her existing provider. She’s also a trusting person.
She let him in and listened to what he had to say.
After observing her current system, the salesman was sure he could offer a better price, and quoted her an amount that was about $10 cheaper despite including a new alarm panel and doorbell camera. He had limited offers to give out, however, and could only guarantee the price if she signed right then. He asked if there was somewhere they could sit down together and review the terms.
Listening from the other room, I stepped in and started asking questions. Asked who exactly he worked for, the man went on a complicated tangent about how his company merged with my aunt’s provider over a decade ago and now want to “upgrade” old customers. We asked why her current company would allow him to do this, but the salesman implied the two companies were working together, handling different parts of the business.
It left us both confused about how we was connected to her current alarm company. But if he wasn’t, how did he have her info?
After he insisted for a while longer that the deal had to be done today, we excused the man from the house. A Google search quickly revealed that his business had no remaining ties to her current provider. Despite his apparent knowledge of her account, the man hadn’t been offering an “upgrade” to her existing set-up: He was offering a different deal from a direct competitor.
FOX 5 isn’t naming the companies involved while we await a response from their legal team. The conversation wasn’t recorded, and sales tactics can be confusing or unethical without breaking any laws.
Whatever gray area it might fall into, the Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission say this tactic and other deceptive practices are common across the country. Especially as the weather turns warmer, the agencies say people should be prepared for trouble to come knocking.
Deceptive pitches and other ‘red flags’ to look for
The FTC says it’s not uncommon for a salesperson to “state or imply that they’re from your existing security company.”
“They say they’re there to ‘upgrade’ or ‘replace’ your current security system,” the consumer protection agency writes in an online guide. “Once they go inside your home, however, they may install a new security system and have you sign papers that include an expensive contract for the monitoring service.”
My aunt wasn’t the only person to encounter this approach in San Diego this week. South Bay resident Nicole Ford told FOX 5 a man knocked on her door late Monday morning. He was there to “update” a home security system that she never had.
“He was very aggressive about trying to sell the service and I don’t even have a security service,” Ford said. “(He) claimed I already had an account with them and wanted to know about an upgrade. It was really confusing.”
Experts say you should also be wary of salespeople who pressure you to act fast.
“If they’re pushing you to make a decision, they’re obviously trying to close the deal … before they step off that front porch,” Sandra Guile, communications director for the BBB, told FOX 5 by phone.
Guile said homeowners should take a deep breath and take some time to consider the deal away from the gaze of a pushy salesperson.
“They’re standing on your front porch,” Guile said, speaking directly to consumers. “You can say, ‘You know, I don’t have to give you any information.'”
Other red flags include:
- Scare tactics, like talking about a rash of supposed burglaries in your neighborhood
- Deals that seem to good to be true — a sharp price increase or hidden fee could be buried in the terms
- Poor ratings with BBB
- A salesperson who lacks clear company identification
- Be aware that some alarm companies contract door-to-door sales to a third-party, “authorized dealer.” Even if the person is selling you technology from a company you trust, they might be employed by a different business that you don’t have a relationship with.
Also keep in mind: A salesperson having information about you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an existing customer. Guile said many people’s name, phone number, birth date and address can be found from public records online.
As for the monthly cost presented to my aunt, Guile said it may have been an educated guess based on her company’s going rate (it was off by three dollars, we later realized). The company has not responded to inquiries about the source of that information.
How to protect yourself
The best way to protect your pocketbook is to never make a decision on the spot, according to the BBB. Conduct independent research and contact at least three companies before signing up for a home security service to make sure you get the best deal.
Before signing, you should ask about all charges up front — including installation fees and monthly monitoring costs — and read the full terms carefully. It’s a good idea to also get a referral from a friend or family member, and quote their terms to a company to see if they will match it.
These are time-consuming steps that you almost certainly cannot do while a salesperson is standing at your door or in your living room.
“I don’t have to make a decision right now at this doorstep,” Guile said, a mantra for nervous homeowners that she repeated several times.
“It’s not rude to tell a salesperson you’re not interested,” the FTC adds. “It’s much easier — and safer — to say ‘no’ on the doorstep than to try to get the salesperson to leave once they’re inside.”
While it can happen to anyone, Guile said some people are at particular risk of a shady home security sales pitch:
- Elderly residents
- People who live alone
- People with a security company yard sign outside their home
- Both the BBB and FTC say this is a commonly used tool for salespeople who imply they work for your active provider
What to do if you regret signing up for a service
There’s good news if you or a loved one agreed to a door-to-door sales deal but quickly realized it was a mistake. The FTC’s Cooling-Off Rule provides an out for people with buyer’s remorse if they act within three business days.
If you cancel a purchase that falls within the policy’s framework (and most door-to-door sales do), the seller has 10 days to cancel and return any check you signed or refund all your money. Within 20 days, the seller has to pick up the items left with you or reimburse you for mailing expenses if you agree to send items back.
As the FTC notes, plenty of legitimate companies use door-to-door sales methods to drum up business without doing anything misleading. “Unfortunately,” the agency says, “so do scammers and dishonest businesses.”
Make sure to share this information with loved ones, particularly those who live alone and are getting older, in order to protect them from a deal they’ll quickly regret.