Warm weather means more salespeople hawking their wares door to door. Community officials and law enforcement officers say residents should exercise a little caution before they invite strangers into their homes.
BROOKINGS – In winter, the temperatures pretty much take care of the problem. After all, who wants to contend with snow and ice? But when the mild days of spring and summer roll around, so do the door-to-door salesmen.
“Transient vendor season” is underway in South Dakota, a time when out-of-state sales teams roll into both urban and rural communities to sell their products and services.
Brookings police have already had several calls about door-to-door salesmen this spring, some involving legitimate sales offers, some that can only be described as suspicious.
Both the police and the city officials charged with licensing these house-to-house sales activities have a word of advice for community residents dealing with them: “Beware.”
A little precaution will go a long way, advises Lt. Derrick Powers, who heads the Brookings Police Department’s Detective Unit. “Be mindful any time you’re doing business,” Powers says, “and always when you’re providing personal information. Obviously, if you’re allowing someone to come into your home, be especially cautious.”
Det. Marci Gebers echoes those sentiments: “We haven’t had any scams here, necessarily – at least not so far this year – but some things may have been a little iffy.”
“In warm weather, we always see an increase in door-to-door activities,” she said, noting that usually there’s a corresponding increase in citizen complaints.
“Obviously we recommend people be cautious.”
Selling door-to-door is a time-honored way of doing business – and it still works – even if scam-sensitive homeowners are a bit more reluctant to answer the doorbell these days.
So, while many of the fair-weather vendors are legitimate hard-working people, the South Dakota Department of Revenue advises people to take common-sense steps to ensure they’re reputable before doing business with them.
Some summertime scams occur in the construction business, when someone from out of town stops by a home offering a very low rate to shingle the house or blacktop a driveway. If you’re considering hiring a person to provide repair or construction services, check with local contractors first. Then, the Department of Revenue advises residents to:
• Ask for a price quote, in advance, in writing.
• Question the contractor about a permanent address and telephone number, and don’t assume that if the information they provide is local, they’re a local business. Transient vendors often have business cards printed with local mailing services or motel addresses and telephone numbers.
• Ask for a list of local references, and check them before making a decision.
• Ask if the contractor has worker’s compensation and general liability insurance. If vendors are not properly insured, homeowners may be liable for accidents that occur on their property.
• Be careful about paying for work in advance; before making final payments, make sure transient vendors have paid their local suppliers or you may be held liable for unpaid materials.
• Make sure you’re completely satisfied with the work before paying the bill, and don’t pay more for the job than originally quoted unless you’ve given written approval for the additional work or cost.
Out-of-state vendors also travel to South Dakota to sell items like fruit, seafood, meat packages, paintings, magazine subscriptions, rugs, T-shirts, sunglasses, household cleaners, furniture and stuffed animals.
Perhaps a consumer’s best protection is to patronize hometown stores for the goods and services the door-to-door salesmen offer.
But if you still want the deal a house-to-house marketer is offering, asking the right questions can help you avoid making a purchase you may regret:
• Question the salesperson about the product, warranties and guarantees.
• Get something in writing with the company’s name, address and phone number.
• Ask to see their current South Dakota tax license. State law requires everyone selling products or services to have a current South Dakota sales or contractors’ excise tax license. To verify if the license is valid, call the Department’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-829-9188.
All sellers must provide you with a contract or receipt at the time of sale showing the date, merchant’s name and address, and a statement informing you of your right to cancel the contract within three days. After proper cancellation, the seller has 10 days to refund your money.
That “refund policy” won’t help, though, if the seller is a scam artist and is already three states away by the time you discover you’ve been cheated.
The City of Brookings offers some protection in that all door-to-door salespeople must have – in addition to a state sales tax license – a peddler’s or transient merchant’s license.
Going door-to-door here isn’t cheap. It requires a $100 license plus a $6.19 convenience fee. Without this license – which must be shown on request – they can’t sell anything in Brookings. No sales from the back of a truck, no temporary roadside stands. And no sales before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
The only exceptions to the rule are charitable, educational or religious organizations – Scouts and band kids, for example – who make their home in the community. For all others, peddler’s licenses are available at the city clerk’s office.
Even legitimate door-to-door vendors – like vacuum-cleaner and magazine salespeople – have annoyed or alarmed some local residents, says Powers, who explains that police often get reports of pushy salespeople – occasionally even someone who’s tried strongarm tactics.
“We’ve had some concerns with magazine subscription sales people, and we’ve had some who are probably legitimate but maybe a little too pushy.”
City Hall tries to verify the backgrounds of those it licenses, including doing criminal history checks, the detective noted, but occasionally, a few bad apples will slip through the cracks.
“Whenever someone is calling on you who is causing problems or using tactics that concern you, by all means call us, and we’ll check things out.”
In the past, some door-to-door people have claimed to be working with the local schools to sell books or magazines. It’s easy enough to verify that with a phone call to district headquarters.
This spring, a vacuum cleaner salesman raised some concerns with his somewhat odd behavior, but he was apparently licensed and legitimate. A few phone calls to the Brookings Police Department resolved the problem.
It’s always a good idea to check with local law enforcement offices to ensure vendors are reputable before giving anyone any money – and especially when larger sums are involved.
City Clerk Shari Thornes said residents who want to verify that someone has a transient merchant license may call the City Clerk’s Office, 692-6281, during regular business hours, or the Brookings Police Department, 692-2113, whose officials are also kept up-to-date on merchants licensed here.
If you have doubts about the vendor or think you may have been the victim of a scam, call your local police department or county sheriff’s office immediately. You can also contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Office at 1-800-300-1986 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be prepared to give as much information as you can about the vendor, including the name of the company and salesperson; company address and telephone number; and make, model and license number (if possible) of the vehicle the vendor was driving. Without tips from the public, law enforcement officials may not be able to catch illegal vendors before they move on to the next community.
For more information on transient vendors, contact the South Dakota Department of Revenue’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-829-9188 or City Clerk Thornes at 692-6281 or email@example.com.