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Door-to-door scam operations on the rise

The young man who showed up at Brendan Cullen's house in Port Orchard, Wash., claimed to be selling magazines to raise money for his school. If he sold the most, he said, he'd win a trip.

"He sounded sincere," Cullen remembered. "When a kid comes to your door you don't expect him to be trying to scam you."

Cullen wanted to help, so he bought a number of subscriptions for $60. But the magazines never came — not a single one. He called the number on the sales receipt but could never reach anyone.

"All I want is the magazines I ordered, and I'll be happy," he told me. "I just don't like getting screwed over like that."

Cullen filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but he realizes he'll never get the magazines or his money back.

The BBB has already received more than 1,000 complaints about magazine sales so far this year, compared with 1,300 in all of 2011.

"We are very concerned about this," said Katherine Hutt with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "We’re seeing a big uptick in complaints about aggressive door-to-door selling."

Every summer, kids from all over the country are packed into vans and taken from community to community to sell books and magazines. While some of them are legitimate salespeople with the proper licenses and permits, many are just trying to make a quick buck at your expense. Once they leave town, you can never find them.

Jeff Bowman, chief of police in Gearhart, Ore., sees it happen in his seaside city every year.

"There is no contest," he warned. "It’s just a gimmick to get your money. Their job is to sell you something.”

Bowman said he feels sorry for the kids because they don't make very much money for their work. In some cases, the handlers use intimidation to get them to increase their sales.

It's more than magazines
Deceptive door-to-door sales tactics are used year-round to sell all sorts of products and services: home improvement projects, security systems and monitoring, miracle cleaning products and even groceries.

"Unscrupulous marketers sometimes trick consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for items they don't want or can't afford," said the BBB’s Hutt. "Oftentimes, their presentations are so slick that consumers aren't even aware that they have actually made a purchase."

Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services recently warned people about door-to-door salespeople selling alarm monitoring. The department’s Lisa McGee told me these salespeople are not licensed and use a variety of “unethical sales tactics” to confuse and deceive people.

"They may tell a homeowner that their neighbors have already signed up for the service when that's not the case,” McGee said.

They may also lie about cancellation policies or make it appear that they're with the homeowner’s alarm service, when they are not.

In St. Paul, Minn., Betty Loose got snookered by a door-to-door driveway repair scam. She was working in her flower garden when a young man walked up and offered to repave her driveway for just $350. He said they could offer that "discounted” price because they'd just finished a job in the area and had leftover asphalt.

Loose said yes, but she wanted to see the paperwork first. They said they'd take care of that once the work was done. They sure did. They handed her a bill for $2,000.

The 88-year-old widow knew she was being scammed, but she tells me that with two big guys in her kitchen she felt intimidated. So she gave them a check — which they cashed immediately.

"They wiped me out, but I paid for it," she said.

Adding insult to injury, the work was substandard.

“For that amount, they should have done the entire driveway," Loose said.  "Plus, it was a lousy job. A new driveway should look beautiful, and it looks horrible.”

She made repeated calls to the company, and someone did come back and made a few feeble attempts to fix the most obvious problems. But the work is still inferior and needs to be redone.

Loose filed a complaint with the BBB, but the company wouldn’t return her money. And without a signed contract, there wasn’t much else she could do.

ConsumerMan tips to protect yourself
It’s always risky to buy things from some unknown salesperson who knocks on your door. That’s why we have a rule in my house: We don’t buy anything this way, unless it’s a neighborhood kid we know. That may sound harsh, but it’s the smart thing to do.

There’s no easy way to know if that person at that doorstep is legitimate or a con artist. ID badges can be faked and receipts can list a bogus address or phone number.

The fact that someone shows up at your house without an appointment is a high-pressure sales tactic. If you have a hard time saying no to someone face-to-face, just don’t open the door. Tell them you’re not interested and ask them to go away.

Finally, never let an unknown salesperson into your house — not to use the bathroom, get a glass of water or make a phone call. It’s just not safe. If for any reason you feel in danger, call 911. 

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