It may have happened in your neighborhood: the doorbell rings. At the door, a clean-cut young adult smiles at you, brochures in hand. “Hey, listen, I’m trying to win points toward a scholarship, and I’m hoping you can help me out.” He extends his hand to shake yours, and you extend your housework-stained hand to him. “Great! My name’s Jim. Your neighbor Julie just told me you might be interested in taking a look at this.” And he places a brochure into the hand you don’t quite jerk back fast enough.
What just happened? Most people assume the following:
The kid’s from around here; if you ask, he might cite the local high school or a community college.
The kid’s really looking for ways to raise college money.
You’re pretty safe in this situation.
The kid at your doorstep is a predator.
There is no way this predatorial embryonic salescreep is a victim.
VERY, VERY FALSE.
The Truth About Door To Door Magazine Sales
The typical young person engaging in this kind of activity is often even younger than he or she appears, but most are at least eighteen. They’ve been recruited by “no experience necessary – high paying sales” classified advertisements, usually in lower-income neighborhoods or mid-size cities. The sales manager gets them in, reels them in with a sales shpiel, and convinces them that, no, there are no positions left here in your hometown, but if you’ll join us, we’re driving over to Dayton (always a town hundreds of miles away) and you can work with us there for a while before coming back here.
After a hard-sell pitch, enthusiastic encouragement by the other young salespeople, and a pack of lies about the great future there is for the kids who go through this process, the young person — almost always naive and inexperienced — joins the van crew. He or she is in for a big surprise.
Life In A Door-To-Door Sales Crew
Every sales member has to pay for food, lodging, and sometimes even part of the van travel. They start out in the hole. The sales manager gives them about twenty dollars a day to buy cigarettes and other incidental items. If the new salesperson doesn’t have clothes up to the clean-cut standards of the crew, he has to go shopping — another debt he incurs. And if he did somehow manage to make money from his percentage of the magazine sales, his wages were withheld “on the books” until the manager decided the sales tour was over.
It was often worse than just owing your soul to the company. Many times there were beatings administered to the kid who sold the least, the kid who mouthed off, the kid who cried because he was homesick. Drugs were a common part of life in the evenings. Girls would trade sex to the manager for favors. Miss your sales quota, and you might be forced to fight another guy who missed his.
Things get worse before they get better. The sales manager never gets a permit to sell door to door; in state after state, you find yourself wanted, a warrant out for selling without a license. Or for trespassing. Or for drugs. Some members of your sales crew start ripping off customers — slipping small valuables in the pocket, asking to use the bathroom and raiding the cabinet for drugs, even breaking into houses that seem abandoned.
Most ex-members tell even worse stories: of covered-up murders, disappearances, of fearing for their lives every day, rape, assault. Usually the crimes are within the sales crew; sometimes the crimes are against members in the community they are selling to.
In any case, members of the sales crew are virtual slaves, with no means to drive home, cash withheld by their managers, and in debt up to their eyeballs for “expenses.” (In 1987, a Congressional inquiry found that of 418 sales personnel in one company, 413 left the company in debt to it, while the company was reporting excellent profits.) Those who try to escape are sometimes killed, and usually beaten, not to prevent them from leaving so much as to intimidate the others. Even those who do depart, sneaking away in the dead of night, leave without any wages owed to them; they’re afraid to ask for them. For most, there seems to be no way out.
Dangers to Society
The danger of traveling sales crews extends beyond the crew itself. Police view them as a nuisance at best, and a menace at worst, because they have no qualms about taking advantage of elderly, sometimes confused customers. In one case, a nearly-blind 85-year-old woman bought 210 years of a subscription, and in other cases customers have been billed for subscriptions they never receive or tricked into spending much more than they intended to.
In addition, the poorly-vetted sales staff often has people on the run from warrants or a bad personal past. In several cases, children answering doors to them have been molested. Women have been raped, homes burglarized and vandalized, and in a few cases potential customers, usually elderly women, have been robbed and then murdered. Many police agency suspect that fly-by-night sales crews have committed unsolved crimes in their neighborhoods; the crew comes in, the criminals among them strike, and within days the whole bunch is gone.
What You Can Do
Protect yourself. Remember that any time a stranger is at your door expecting you to let them in, it could mean anything — they could be intending to rob you or harm you, or they could be looking to scam you in one of a hundred ways. Buy your magazines online, not from door-to-door salespeople.
Help these kids out. Remember, most members of these sales crews are abused, scared kids far away from home and anyone who can help them. ParentWatch Inc. is an organization created by ex-sales-crew and the parents of victimized young people designed to help you stay safe, but also help the kids get back home. If you have a problem with these young people, check their website for ways you can contact ParentWatch for them to help them get a bus ticket back home. (Look for the link at the end of this article.) Never, ever approach them or their sales manager without being solicited, and never bring this up if you are in a vulnerable situation. Some of the sales managers will do anything — literally — to keep their crew hostage.
Report sales crews in your area to the police. Though it’s good to try helping these kids, your most important priority should always be yourself and your family. The more difficult it is for sales crews to operate in your neighborhood, the more likely they will be to move on; eventually, they won’t be able to operate anywhere and will go out of business.
Buy your magazine subscriptions online! They’re cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about dealing with a stranger.