Angi member Ruth McIntosh admits she knew better than to fall for the scam.
But McIntosh decided to give the benefit of the doubt to two Pinnacle Security salesmen who knocked on her San Antonio door one Saturday evening. She says she listened, as they promised her a free upgrade on her existing alarm system, and no rate increases for five years. “They were all clean-cut and honest looking,” she says. “They just seemed so sweet."
Seduced by their low prices, McIntosh agreed to their service and signed a contract. “I broke all my rules that day,” she says. “I let strangers into my house, I signed papers without reading them, I made a decision under the pressure of ‘if you do it right now, we can offer you a bigger deal’ — every safety rule that you have about door-to-door salesmen, I broke that day.”
McIntosh says before the ink dried on her contract, the Pinnacle salesmen ushered in a technician to dismantle the old system and install the new one. She says during that process — which lasted past 10 p.m. — the technician offered her accessories and options for the system, and when she hesitated or declined, he’d drop the price in hopes she’d make the purchase. “They were so aggressive,” she says.
Unfortunately, McIntosh’s experience isn’t unique. Angi members submitted dozens of door-knocking reviews in the past year in a handful of key categories, including alarms, driveways, tree service and landscaping. Their reviews detail aggressive door-to-door sales tactics, especially during the spring and summer months, not only by pushy alarm salesmen, but also by contractors claiming to be in the neighborhood with leftover materials they can give you for a great bargain. The “bargain,” however, often results in a rip-off when they pay for the service, but the contractor never starts the project or leaves behind shoddy or incomplete work, members say.
“You’ll get door-to-door guys trying to make a quick dollar,” says Joe Perry, owner of Varsity Painters in Minneapolis, a nine-time Super Service Award winner. To keep from being scammed, he advises homeowners to do their due diligence prior to hiring, pointing out that an unsolicited proposition rarely allows enough time to do that. “Before you give them any money, you’ve got to do your research,” he says. “But you need time to investigate before agreeing to any work.”
Looks can be deceiving
While McIntosh described the alarm salesmen as clean-cut, that knock on your door might also come from a scruffy-looking contractor who’s a bit too eager to get to work. Angi member reviews indicate driveway contractors often roam neighborhoods during the summertime, offering leftover materials at a discounted price to unsuspecting homeowners.
Member David Lucas of Lakewood, New Jersey, says he also knew better than to hire AMG Paving in Lakewood when a salesman knocked on his door last April and told him he could resurface his driveway at a cheap rate because his equipment was already in the area. “I went against my better judgment,” Lucas says, signing a contract that included a workmanship guarantee, paying $1,500 in cash and watching as the team completed the job in one hour. “After they rolled it out, it looked great initially,” he says, but it wasn’t long before the defects surfaced. “They said they would come by and fix it, but never did.” He joined Angi as a result, and gave AMG a negative grade, its only review.
Lucas says in retrospect, he’d take the time to investigate the company before hiring. “If it’s a legitimate and reputable company, they’re not going to be put off by having to send their equipment back to a certain area,” he says. “The high-pressure, last-minute nature of the sale influenced me the most and I should’ve listened to my gut.” AMG Paving’s phone was disconnected, and the company did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Leonard Sutter, owner of highly rated Sutter Paving in Issaquah, Washington, says he’s very familiar with the less reputable operations that move through town. He says some companies may promise three inches of asphalt, but only lay down one, or they might skip site preparation. “Doing the prep work is half the project,” Sutter says, noting that homeowners can protect themselves by taking a few precautionary steps. “When they knock on your door, ask to see their contractor’s license and make sure they’re bonded,” he says. “Then call the state to verify.”
Sutter, a licensed contractor, says a homeowner should also check with the city to see whether a permit is needed and the state contractor’s board to see if any complaints have been filed against the company. He says a contractor who doesn’t get the utility lines marked is another red flag. “That’s a problem for people who drive up and want to do the job the same day,” he says. “If they’re digging up your driveway, the contractor has to be responsible for calling the utility companies.”
Saving a buck could cost you
A decision made in haste for tree service can also be costly. “These fly-by-night operations don’t have insurance or the proper credentials,” says Dan Marek, owner of Dan’s Tree Service in New Berlin, Wisconsin. “If one of these guys cuts their femoral artery while they’re on your property, they’ll be coming after you to pay for it.”
Marek says homeowners should verify both liability and workers’ comp insurance with the tree service’s insurance company, and certification with either the Tree Care Industry Association or International Society of Arboriculture.
Mitch Reinhardt of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says Clean Cutts, a tree service company in Winston-Salem, knocked on his door last April and offered to remove two dead trees in his yard. Reinhardt says he and the foreman came to a verbal agreement to remove the tree in the front yard, grind the stump and trim back branches in the back yard, but the company failed to complete the work. “They didn’t address the limbs in the backyard, they didn’t grind the stump, and in the front yard they damaged some limbs from another tree,” he says.
Nonetheless, he says he gave the foreman a check for $1,150, only after being promised the crew would return the next day, but they failed to show.
“I left messages, but no one called me back until I threatened to leave a negative review on Angi,” he says, at which point an employee returned to grind the stump, but still failed to cut down the dangling limbs. “I joined Angi to put the word out about these guys,” says Reinhardt, who gave Clean Cutts’ a negative grade. “People are out to take you, and your well-being is nonexistent to them. That’s why Angi is so valuable — it provides such a valuable service.”
The company, which has a negative rating, based on three reviews, could not be reached for comment.
Alarm salesmen raise red flags
When it comes to door-to-door alarm salesmen, scam artists seem to be upping their game, says Mark Thompson, owner of Smith Thompson Home Security in Plano, Texas. “They’re wearing khaki pants and polo shorts, so it’s harder to tell the good guys from the bad. But common sense should tell you, why do you want to purchase a relatively expensive item from a door-to-door salesman without doing your research?”
Thompson recognizes the alarm industry is one of the worst offenders, and he implores homeowners to do their homework. “Most folks are too trusting,” he says. “But if they would just make a couple of phone calls before they hand over any money. You don’t have to be a super consumer to verify a company’s credentials.”
McIntosh says she tried to research Pinnacle Security online while waiting on the late-night installation, and she discovered a plethora of negative reviews and legal actions against the Orem, Utah-based company, which has an overall C rating on Angi, based on 29 reviews from members nationwide.
Pinnacle Security’s paid more than $2 million since 2009 to settle claims from governmental agencies in nine states that alleged deceptive sales tactics, such as claiming your existing security company went out of business and they’ve taken over the accounts; providing misleading cost information; and failure to honor cancellation requests.
“These guys were typical of a fly-by-night company,” McIntosh says. “They aren’t from San Antonio, there’s no San Antonio office. It was like a team that travels across the country. My stomach was in knots,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.” Multiple calls seeking comment from Jason Knapp, Pinnacle’s chief financial officer, and Stuart Dean, Pinnacle’s vice president of communications, were not returned.
Pinnacle’s not the only Utah-based alarm company generating complaints about aggressive door-to-door sales. Vivint, formerly known as APX Alarm Security Systems, has also paid about $675,000 to settle similar claims from governmental agencies in at least four states since 2010 for similar tactics. The nationwide company is highly rated on the List, based on 80 reviews, but it’s excluded from category and keyword searches after landing in the Penalty Box for not responding to two members’ complaints in Washington state and Maryland.
Vivint spokeswoman Lisa Davis says the company doesn’t condone aggressive behavior by their door-to-door salespeople, which she says has diversified in recent years, but includes many college students from nearby Brigham Young University. “That would not be part of how we train our sales force,” she says, adding the company hires friendly, outgoing individuals who are willing to work hard. “These are enthusiastic salespeople.”
Davis also points out that Vivint sales reps are instructed to review a contract with a customer — including detailing the federal cooling-off rule, which gives consumers the right to cancel the sale within three business days — prior to signing. “We as a company have taken the responsibility to make sure customers know that.”
McIntosh says she already knew about the cooling-off rule and decided to invoke it after reviewing the Pinnacle contract the next morning. Despite the salesmen’s promises of a locked-in monthly rate, Pinnacle reserved the right to change the equipment and price at any time without notifying the customer, she says. “I had a sick feeling about the whole thing,” she adds. She also submitted an F review on Angi, and filed complaints with the Texas attorney general’s office and Better Business Bureau. She says Pinnacle still withdrew $295 from her bank account and credit card. “They never told me why,” she says. “It took three weeks to get it refunded.”
John Knox, president of the Electronic Security Association, the largest national trade association for alarm companies, says consumers must do their homework before hiring an alarm company by researching the company and asking friends and neighbors for references — the same advice that Angi recommends for hiring any contractor.
“The homeowner needs to remember that they’re sharing the most intimate part of their lives when they invite a stranger into the home and start talking about security,” Knox says. “For that person to do a proper job, they need to go into every room in the house. And they’ll learn a lot of intimate information. Homeowners need to ask themselves if they’re willing to share that information with someone who just knocked on their door.”
— Additional reporting by Lisa Renze-Rhodes
Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story originally posted May 30, 2013