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Alarming Sales Pitches

They promise protection against burglars, but some salesmen hawking home security systems door to door may be the real crooks.

Last year, the Better Business Bureau received more than 2,000 complaints from homeowners who felt deceived after buying burglar alarm systems. That was a 68 percent jump from 2007.

“These guys are good salesmen,” says Jane Driggs of the Utah BBB in Salt Lake City, where 73 alarm companies are located. “And they do lie.”

One common ploy: “They say they will provide you with a free alarm system if they can put a sign for their company on your front lawn,” notes national BBB spokeswoman Alison Southwick. “Although the equipment may be free, they then hit you with monthly monitoring charges that can cost hundreds of dollars.” Legitimate companies typically charge $20 to $50 a month for monitoring.

Others falsely tell homeowners who already have a security system that their current alarm company is about to close, or that existing equipment needs updating.

And, of course, some could be just posing as salesmen.

“The first thing asked is, ‘Do you have a home security system?’ So it is conceivable he could be there to burglarize you,” says Driggs. “Then they ask to come inside your home to show you how the system would work.”

Even when salesmen are selling working systems, the BBB warns, they may use false promises and scare tactics to close the deal. “You need to fully read the contract before signing anything, and unfortunately, many buyers do not,” adds Driggs. Although the Federal Trade Commission allows buyers a three-day window to cancel any door-to-door purchase costing $25 or more and get a full refund, there’s little recourse beyond that.

What to watch out for

Some tips for avoiding trouble if you answer the door:

• Beware of claims of “limited offers” and that the company is ready to immediately install the system. Reputable companies let you compare bids and engage in a comprehensive review of your security needs.

• Check the company’s reputation at the BBB and call your local municipality. “In some areas, there are specific requirements, such as having a local facility for monitoring your system,” says Southwick. Homeowners may also have to personally register alarm systems with local police, so don’t believe promises that the salesman will do that.

• Call your insurer. You may be entitled to homeowners’ insurance for using certain alarm companies.

• Ask for all procedures in writing. Most alarm contracts are for two to five years, so make sure exactly what you’re getting: If the alarm sounds, does the company first notify you or the police? How soon? What happens if you can’t be reached? Does the company have a local security patrol car? Are there costs for false alarms—and if so, who pays? What’s the early termination fee if you move?

• Expect to pay $1 to $2 per square foot of your home for a complete system, says Consumer Reports. Quality systems combine audible and silent alarms triggered by sensors placed throughout the home, not just on doors and windows. Higher-tech sensors can distinguish between a human and pet; cheaper ones cannot.

The National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association, which certifies installers, has information on choosing a system and dealer on its website. If you think you were ripped off by an alarm company, report it to the BBB, FTC or your state attorney general.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of “Scam-Proof Your Life.”

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