Your home is a scam magnet
Magazines. Meat. Home repairs. Vacuum cleaners. Asphalt paving. Those are but a few of the many products that are sold door-to-door in some parts of the U.S.
Door-to-door sales aren't new, but consumer complaints about scams in such solicitations are on the rise , according to Katherine Hutt, a spokesperson at the national Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) in Washington, D.C.
"Unscrupulous marketers sometimes trick consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for items they don't want or can't afford. Oftentimes, their presentations are so slick consumers aren't even aware they've actually made a purchase," Hutt says.
High-pressure sales tactics
Your front door is attractive to scammers for much the same reasons it appeals to legitimate salespeople, explains Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer-advocacy groups in Washington D.C. In both cases, Grant says, the aims are to catch you off-guard, quickly establish rapport, play on your politeness and create a sense of urgency to get you to say yes.
"Those are all techniques that are used by legitimate salespeople," Grant says. "The problem with the fraudulent ones is all they are interested in is taking your money and not giving you what they promised in return."
Parrell Grossman, an attorney and director of the consumer protection division of the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General in Bismarck, says high-pressure sales tactics and an emphasis on convenience are common elements of door-to-door solicitation fraud.
Another attraction for scammers -- and risk for you -- is the scammer's opportunity to install equipment, such as a water purification system, burglar alarm, satellite dish or whatever, in your home very quickly, Grossman explains.
"The salesperson might come Friday and by Monday morning, somebody is showing up and installing a $400 [system] and now you're committed to a one- or two-year contract," he says.
If the vendor is legitimate and you want the service, that's fine. But if you've been hit by a scam or don't really need what you bought, it can be more difficult to cancel once a device has been attached to your home, Grossman says.
Tips to deter door-to-door scams
Here are five ways to protect yourself from door-to-door scammers:
No. 1: Keep your door closed. The Council of BBBs says you should never let an unsolicited salesperson -- someone who showed up not at your request -- into your home. If you do allow someone inside and then decide you don't want to make a purchase, ask him or her to leave. If he or she refuses to go, threaten to the call the police. If that doesn't work, follow through and make that call.
No. 2: Post a "No Soliciting" sign. A sign isn't a perfect deterrent, but it could limit your risk of being subjected to high-pressure sales tactics, whether legitimate or not. Some communities have local ordinances that prohibit vendors from initiating a sales call when a sign is posted, Grossman explains.
"Signs work to varying degrees," he says. "It's not an absolute. It certainly can't hurt."
No. 3: Cool off. Federal law gives you a three-day "cooling off" period in which you can cancel any deal that involves a door-to-door solicitation and more than $25. You're supposed to be given notice of this right at the time of the transaction, and if notice isn't given, the time period is automatically extended, Grant explains. The catch is that cancellation rights can be difficult to enforce, so it's better not to commit to purchasing anything right away unless you're sure you want it.
"When you give crooks money, it's usually gone for good, so you have to be careful," Grant says.
No. 4: Just say no.Tell solicitors you aren't interested in their product, service or message and then walk away.
"There's no legal requirement to be polite in these circumstances, and often it is counterproductive to your well-being as a consumer, particular an elderly consumer," Grossman says.
No. 5: Take control. Some people welcome legitimate door-to-door solicitations. Others prefer to ignore unexpected knocks and rings. Either way, Grant says you should never do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
"You don't have to listen to somebody if you're not interested. You don't have to acknowledge that you are home," she says.
The bottom line is that no matter how enticing the sales pitch might seem, you can take control of these situations, rather than be controlled by them.
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Marcie Geffner is an award-winning freelance reporter, writer, editor and blogger whose work has been published by MSNBC, CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, Fox Business, Bankrate.com, AOL Real Estate, ThirdAge.com, Fidelity.com, Inman News and dozens of major U.S. newspapers. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from UCLA and MBA from Pepperdine University. You can follow Marcie on Twitter: @marciegeff.