Skeezy Scammers On The Prowl In Arcata – August 16, 2011
Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – Gypsies, tramps and thieves are aswarm in Arcata, scheming and scamming ways to bilk you, your elderly relatives and your company.
A recent rash of predatory and deceptive tactics have been committed by individuals ranging from rogue employees of a reputable company to Internet marketing schemers.
These fresh insults to fair business practices ride into town on top of the usual background noise of fake unsolicited checks, Craigslist ripoffs, phony sweepstakes’ and innumerable other identity theft scams. And that’s not even counting Mrs. Elizavetha Vladimir Cusova from the Repuplic [sic] Of Moldova, whose urgent e-mail promises suitcases containing $24.5 million in cash.
It’s almost as though these people don’t really care about us.
Arcata Police recently revoked 10 solicitor’s permits issued to a security alarm company following citizen complaints about overly aggressive sales tactics and questionable business practices.
Meanwhile, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce has issued a stern warning about an Iowa company selling advertising space on refrigerator magnets in the name of family safety. And the Arcata Eye has been honored by a Tempe, Ariz. company as “Best In Business” among Arcata newspaper publishers, and eligible for an expensive plaque.
On July 13, APD issued 10 permits for individual salespeople representing Vivint, Inc., a Utah-based home security system company. The permits are available to door-to-door sales personnel once documentation is provided affirming that a company is legitimate. A thumbprint is taken from each applicant.
An initial complaint to APD came from a man whose father had purchased a security system. In billing the gentleman, the company had asked for his bank account information, including the routing number – an unconventional method that could leave the citizen vulnerable to fraud.
“That really raised red flags,” said APD Lt. Ryan Peterson. Then more complaints came in alleging overly aggressive sales tactics by the company’s field reps.
In checking with other local police agencies about Vivint, he said “the floodgates opened” with similar reports. The salespeople were reportedly playing up dangers and telling citizens they’re “not protected” unless they purchase the company’s wares.
One local resident experienced the pressure tactics firsthand. Two weeks ago, a Vivint field rep came to the door asking how many entrances and windows her home had, how many rooms and how many people live there. When the female resident asked for a business card, the man said he didn’t have one.
She told him she had no way of distinguishing him from a burglar, at which point the man left, saying, “Good luck,” in a leering tone, implying that she might be in danger.
That night at about 9:30 p.m., she said, the man returned to the street, this time with a hitherto unseen cohort. Using a flashlight, the two peered into mailboxes up and down the block. The resident assumed they were placing sales literature in the mailboxes, but the mystery duo left the boxes empty, and the purpose of the nocturnal postal inspection is unknown.
Peterson takes particular umbrage at the company’s implications of looming danger to Arcata residents. “Quite frankly, they don’t know anything about our community,” Peterson said. “Arcata has safe neighborhoods, and they made people feel frightened.”
Peterson called Vivint’s field supervisor in for a talk, telling him that “I don’t need your company in my community telling people they’re unsafe,” and revoking the company’s permits. Peterson said the company rep was cooperative, and took the news amicably.
“Our focus is to protect citizens,” Peterson said. He noted that the elderly are often preyed upon by scammers, and are more vulnerable to pressure tactics.
“We just don’t know what these guys are out there doing,” Peterson said. “We don’t want to interfere with business, but in this case, it just wasn’t working.”
Vivint Director of Media Relations Megan Herrick said the company does not condone aggressive or improper sales tactics. “We have very high standards with our sales training,” she said.
Vivint employees are required to wear a distinctive orange shirt and a numbered badge. Herrick said anyone subjected to inappropriate conduct by a Vivint employee should note the badge number and contact the company immediately with that, the name of the street and the date and time.
“If we ever did have a problem, we want to know about it,” she said.
Herrick said she researched Arcata-area sales to locate the elderly gentleman whose son had been concerned, and was able to track down the nonagenarian customer.
She reassured the son that nothing questionable was afoot.
She said the checking account billing is a standard arrangement, which allows payments to be deducted. While all customers have a three-day right of rescission to any contract they sign with the company, Herrick said those over age 70 have 30 days to do so.
Herrick said her company has also been victimized by those who trade on its good name. Faux field reps go so far as to don orange shirts similar to those worn by Vivint’s representatives, then go door to door selling their own products.
Also capitalizing on home safety concerns is a Davenport, Iowa-based outfit called Communities Unlimited, LLC (CU), whose website states that, “Our goal is to provide safety for local families at any circumstance, at any time of need.”
Its main weapon for ensuring family safety is refrigerator magnets.
Last week, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce issued a “Possible Scam Alert” over a mass e-mail CU sent out touting its fridge magnets.
The company’s e-mail claims that “up to 5,000 exclusive full color 2011 Magnetized City Guidesto [sic] be distributed this September to the local families.”
“The City Information Guides are meant to keep your families safe by having the emergency and important local numbers listed so our families will always have them when they are needed most,” continues the e-mail sales pitch.
“Our quality control standards are high,” CU assures. But the magnet’s crude layout, with off-center text crowding a border and faces in ads noticeably widened to force-fit into the space, undermines any artisinal aspirations.
The company charges $299.50 for a two-inch square ad on the “up to 5,000” magnets. One may purchase the entire magnet space for just $1,299.50.
Called about where the local families might find the magnets, a CU representative said they would be left out in “high-volume” areas such as banks and grocery stores.
The six- by eight-inch magnets helpfully list 911 as an emergency number, along with county, city and national emergency phone numbers as well as that of the “local chamber of commerce,” which is always handy in family emergencies.
Along with the line listing, the Chamber gets its own breakout box also listing its address and website. One might easily assume the garish mini-billboard is a Chamber project, possibly designed by someone there who is suffering from vision impairment or possibly some form of neuromotor disability.
It isn’t, and the multiple mentions of the Chamber is where Executive Director Brenda Bishop drew the line. “The Arcata Chamber of Commerce and California Welcome Center DOES NOT endorse this organization and IS NOT affiliated with this company or its product,” cautioned Bishop.
She said solicitations invoking the Chamber’s name should be approached warily, and urged those solicited to contact the Chamber directly at (707) 822-3619.
Local institutions, including the Chamber and high schools, have long been exploited in deceptive solicitations for poorly-wrought magnets, maps and calendars.
Several years ago, an out-of-the-area company pitched local businesses to buy its ersatz Arcata High School Tigers calendars, with nebulous and, it turned out, false claims that the proceeds from ad purchases benefitted the school.
The flim-flammers invite purchases by well-intentioned customers who wish to support local high student endeavors. But the effect is to attract funds which local small businesses have budgeted for community give-back, drawing those monies away from actual fundraising efforts put on by the school.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Communities Unlimited also sells calendars, or as it refers to them, “Sports Calenders [sic] For Local High Schools.”
The website features stock images of frolicking parents and children, one of which appears to still bear the clip art service’s watermark. Accompanying promotional text could have been composed by someone new to the English language (see left).
The company’s Davenport, Iowa address shows up on Google Earth as shared with a Schwan’s restaurant in an industrial park on the outskirts of town.
Eye honored, or something
The Arcata Eye has never participated in state or national journalism award contests, as they all require registration fees. Those funds are better spent on creating content for readers than gaining trophies and toasts. While many of the awards are prestigious and genuinely reflect excellence, there is a pay-to-play element to just about all of them.
But now, out of the blue, the Eye has been freely honored with an award by a Tempe, Arizona firm called the “Small Business Community Association” (SBCA). The award includes optional plaques which list “Arcata Eye Newspaper” as “Best of Business” for “Arcata Newspapers (Publishers) 2010.”
The plaques – one a traditional wood and brass model and the other a fancier, engraved glass affair – are available for $157.97. Also included for that fee are two “free” $25 restaurant gift cards and “5 Days & 4 Nights in Cancun or Riviera Maya.”
Marring the attractivenes of its “Red Wood Finish,” the grammatically awkward plaque appears to use a default Times-Roman font, and two lines suffer from cramped kerning.
Graced with clip art of today’s young, well-dressed career achievers in various states of excitement, the SBCA Community site describes itself as “the official website for small businesses,” offering a comprehensive resource for business planning. But sbcacommunity.com looks like it was released to the wild in early beta form. Several of the links listed on the site are ether dead or playfully moribund.
A “PLANNING” link goes to a page offering “State Information Links For Small Business.” This guide lists but three states – three of the four that start with “A,” in alphabetical order.
Unfortunately for fledgling businesses in Arkansas and states that begin with all other letters of the alphabet, they await inclusion in the one-stop planning resource.
An Alaska link leads to potentially useful business and other information about that state, but the Alabama and Arizona links bring only missing-page messages titled, “You 404’d it. Gnarly, dude.”
A “FUN STUFF” link brings up a headline reading, “Why Is The World Is Going To End” [sic], discussing a May 21, 2011 global apocalypse based on numerological proofs described in a pamphlet someone found in Union Square.
There are links to videos about online marketing techniques, and that appears to be SBCA’s real focus. Other than Chairman Rich Thurman, members of the “Selection Committee” for the award are not named, nor is there any detail about any journalism criteria used in selecting the Eye as best among Arcata’s pool of newspaper publishers.
A “press release” trumpeting the Eye’s achievement offers this vague information: “Using the world’s most comprehensive directory of business information on people and companies and other research, the SBCA identifies companies that we believe have demonstrated what makes small businesses a vital part of the American economy.”
No details regarding the Mexico vacation included in the $158 plaque fee are listed on the SBCA website. A call and e-mail to SBCA with questions about the selection criteria and vacation elicited no response.
SBCA Community’s address shows up on Google Earth as a private home with a green swimming pool in an unusual-looking (for Arcata) neighborhood where all the houses are walled off from each other.
Thurman is the registrant of the sbcaawards.org website. His organization is listed as First To Move Marketing, which also owns sbcacommunity.com. First To Move Marketing is located about a mile from the walled residence, in a strip mall next to a Ted’s Jumbo Hot Dogs restaurant.
Neither business is listed in the Tempe Chamber of Commerce’s membership directory.
‘We’re all over it’
Eureka Chamber of Commerce Director J Warren Hockaday said the Eureka Chamber is also vigilant against exploitative scams like the high school calendars. “In that case, we’re all over it,” he said.
He said that just because a solicitation is from out of the area, that doesn’t mean it’s a scam. But, he added, “any promotion that comes to you from Peoria is probably available here locally.”
And at higher quality. The Peoria reference stems from some “local” phone books that a company from that town pitched in Eureka. The phone books’ center spread included two maps labeled as Arcata and Eureka, but both depicted Eureka.
“We get these kinds of things all the time,” Hockaday said.