Target 8: Security Scams

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COLUMBIA - In the spring and summer months, it's not uncommon to see a salesman from a home security company going door-to-door. But what sounds like a convincing sales pitch, could be nothing more than a scam.

Home security scams are a national concern. The Federal Trade Commission, and even Angie's List, have published consumer warnings on the issue.

In several surrounding states, home security companies are required to have some kind of state-issued certification. This way the state can keep the companies at least somewhat accountable to their sales pitch. But in most of Missouri, a home security company only needs a business license.

Brian Marema, owner of Command Security & Sound, said this could be a big problem for mid-Missouri consumers.

"A lot of people get into business just for the wrong reasons," Marema said. "It's just to make a quick buck, and a lot of times, that's at the expense of the consumer."

Though there is no state-required accreditation for home security companies in Missouri, St. Louis and Kansas City created their own standard of certification. However, that jurisdiction does not extend into mid-Missouri.

Sean Spence of the Mid-Missouri Better Business Bureau said because Columbia does not require certification for home security companies, the extra responsibility falls on the consumer.

"A lot of localities, and even some states, do require some sort of accreditation or licensing for home security companies," Spence said. "We don't do that here. So honestly, it makes it much more important that a home owner, or a business owner, check out the security company before they hire them."

Marema said though the lack of required certification could spell trouble for consumers, there are plenty of things they can do protect themselves from scams. 

"I think that should concern people," Marema said. "But even if Missouri had some sort of required alarm system licensing, it would still be a good idea for people to do their own research. And that goes across the board into other industries as well."

Marema said he wants people to know how to be smart buyers in the home security industry, and any other industry as well.

"It's all about being an informed consumer," Marema said.

In order to best protect yourself (and your wallet) from scammers and con artists, Marema and Spence recommend taking these actions to be an informed consumer:

First, Spence said you should ask always ask the company for references.

"One of the first things to do is to ask for references, and check them," Spence said. "Making sure you take the time to really talk to former customers, or current customers, of a security company is so important."

Second, Marema said it is important for customers to understand the long-term implications of different payment plans.

"Some companies will offer a free system, but with a long-term contract. So, it's not really a free system. You just pay for it over the long run. On the other hand, some companies have more of an upfront cost for the equipment, and shorter-term contracts or lower monthly monitoring rates."

Marema said customers should look at a company's total cost over time. Just because one company charges less upfront, does not necessarily mean it will be the best value in the long run.

Third, Marema and Spence said customers should always compare bids from multiple companies.

"You really want to make sure you get at least three bids on any job," Spence said. "You want to get at least three bids so you can compare price, quality, what they are promising... and really make an educated decision." 

Fourth, Marema said consumers should look for guidance from a reputable trade organization. 

"Most industries, whether they are licensed or not, will have a trade organization that will give you some sort of direction," Marema said. "Most reputable companies will try to be in good standing with the trade organizations in that industry."

For example, if you need your air conditioning fixed, you can check to see if your repair company is in good standing with the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute. If you are thinking about switching to a new pharmacy, check with the American Pharmacists Association. Marema said in the home security industry, the most reputable trade organization is the Electronic Security Organization

Spence said if you don't know which trade industry to check out, you can always try the Better Business Bureau.

"If you check online at Mid-MO BBB, you can get information about companies of all kinds," Spence said. "For many companies we offer a rating of 'A+' to 'F,' based on their reputation, and what they are doing in the community relating to building a trustworthy business." 

Fifth, Marema said people should understand that, in many industries, the price you pay will reflect the quality of service you receive.

"The alarm industry is like anything else, you get what you pay for," Marema said. "If you're paying a rock-bottom rate... if you paid barely anything for the installation, and you payed barely anything for the monitoring... you might not be getting that great of a service."

And finally, Marema said customers should understand there is no such thing as a free lunch.

"You should never assume you're ever getting anything for free," Marema said. "A for-profit business wouldn't be in business if they weren't trying to make a profit. That's why someone goes into business! Every company wants to make money." 

Spence and Marema said these strategies can help you be an informed consumer in any industry. In addition to the strategies mentioned above, Spence said it is also important to remain vigilant in sighting any "red flags."

Spence said the majority of scams are based around a promise or a threat. He said you should be cautious if you feel like a business is trying to pressure or frighten you. People can make hasty decisions when they are under pressure, and scammers will do their best to capitalize on it.

All in all, Marema urged customers to understand that every job needs to be researched and weighed carefully. He said looks can be deceiving, so always do your due diligence to be an informed consumer.

"You should never assume that just because someone has a shirt with a logo, and a business card... that they know what they're talking about," Marema said.