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[March 15, 2014]
Saturday Money: The 'simple' way to stop burglars that set alarm bells ringing: Your rights A single mother explains why she now regrets trying to protect her home. Rebecca Smithers reports
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) After thieves stole bicycles from her back garden, single mother Claire Seeber was left feeling vulnerable and keen to find ways to protect her young family.
Then, by chance, on a bank holiday evening a few weeks later as she was about to put her two children to bed, a salesman knocked on the door of her south-east London home. He was from ADT - the UK's largest alarm and security specialist - and Seeber let him in. "It was the end of the day and I was tired after a kids' party," she reflects. "He said he had the perfect alarm and made it all sound so simple." By the end of the evening Seeber had signed up - a decision she bitterly regrets after realising 10 months later, she says, that she was locked into a three-year contract which would cost her pounds 381 to quit. In allegations against ADT, vigorously denied by the company, she claims that she was subjected to high-pressure sales techniques and that it was not made clear the contract would last three years.
ADT points out that she signed the contract - the main points of which were clearly set out and initialled by her in a 12-point list - and that she had a cancellation period which she failed to use.
Her case comes amid concerns about the vulnerability of consumers to high-pressure doorstep sales agents, plus challenges to the legality of contracts that tie consumers in for long terms and charge excessive amounts to exit.
In 2011 the Office of Fair Trading won a landmark ruling on contracts that don't allow consumers to cancel if their circumstances change. After a four-day hearing involving a gym chain a judge ruled that a gym contract was unfair if it was for longer than 12 months and did not allow the consumer to cancel with 30 days notice and pay a moderate sum in compensation.
Seeber insists she would not knowingly have agreed to a three-year contract: "The salesman asked me to sign a checklist of things he'd been through, just to say he'd 'explained' them to me," she recalls.
"I had no idea I was signing up to a three-year contract. He told me I could terminate if needs be. I remember clearly 18 months." He also urged her to sign up to a "one-day-only offer" for pounds 49 installation, plus a pounds 22 monthly charge.
Soon after, Seeber, a writer and novelist, alleges the problems began. Rather than a coded alarm, she was given fob-based controls. "I had to pay for extra fobs, as everyone who came in and out of the house needed one." But ADT said that the product was clearly set out in the contract and checklist that Seeber signed, including the fact that four alarm fobs were included in the package purchased.
A few months later the alarm broke down late at night. "After many, many phone calls someone from ADT came - although I had no alarm in the interim - and of course, no refund for this time." In February Seeber moved to Derbyshire, and the tenants moving into her London house did not want to use the alarm. Only then did she find she'd have to pay pounds 381 to terminate the contract.
Research by the OFT has confirmed that, for many consumers, buying goods and services in the home involves more pressure than buying in other settings.
Citizens Advice regularly reports that clients have been persuaded to sign up to purchases they did not want and could not afford after several hours of pressure selling.
We raised Seeber's case with ADT. In a statement ADT said: "The terms and conditions, as well as products, are clearly set out in the contract and a simple checklist which Ms Seeber initialled and signed. Customers have the opportunity to change their mind and the option to cancel the contract at any time before the alarm system is installed. If they do cancel prior to the alarm installation, they will receive a full refund." It refutes allegations of high-pressure selling. It says the sales representative has left the company and also the country. Its guidelines advise sales teams to work between 10am and 8pm weekdays and Saturdays from 10am until 5pm, but recommends they do not call on Sundays or bank holidays.
"At ADT we pride ourselves on trading fairly. All our sales representatives receive the best practice sales and product training. Our sales representatives are trained to talk customers through the simple, clear and transparent information, using our printed sales presenter document as a visual aid." It said, however, that the special offer was limited: "It was unique to the customer on that day. Ms Seeber signed up to an system which cost her pounds 49, which covered the installation of the equipment and agreed to a standard pounds 21.99 per month contract for 36 months. Our standard cost for the alarm system is pounds 99 plus the monthly fees.
Seeber's case boils down to a simple, but crucial issue - what she thought she was signing. Clearly, it is essential consumers read all paperwork and contracts before signing - ideally, not under the pressure of an unsolicited visit at home.
ADT has agreed to waive the pounds 381 termination fee and said: "We are committed to providing excellent customer services and are sorry that Ms Seeber feels she did not receive good customer care on this occasion." Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: "People are being harassed by pushy doorstep sellers and disruptive cold callers. Nine in 10 don't trust companies whose sales representatives contact them by cold calling, so it is high time it is banned.
"Nobody should be put on the spot to decide on a long-term contract for something as important as their security system or essential fixtures. Citizens Advice has seen 1,304 problems with high-pressure selling in 2013, of which 616 were around house fittings and appliances. Consumers must be told they have seven days to cancel a contract sold in their homes.
"If they're not made aware of this the contract may not be enforceable. If someone feels that they have been sold something aggressively and were unable to take in the terms and conditions, or if they feel there is an unfair term in their contract, they should write to the company and may want to report it to Trading Standards." (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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