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More Adventures in Home Improvement

Nightmare on Security Street

July 20, 2006 to present

Living in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the nation makes security monitoring as necessary as water, electric, sewer, and trash pickup. Our neighbors on both sides have had their homes broken into more than once, but fortunately in my ten years in this house it has never happened to us. I credit that good fortune to a moderately sophisticated electronic security system.

I don’t recall when our first security system was installed, but if I had to guess I’d say somewhere in the mid to late nineties. On March 28, 2003, two well-dressed young men rang our doorbell and offered to upgrade our security system with the latest technology for $50. Their General Electric Genie monitoring system, which came with a remote activate/deactivate keychain fob, sounded far superior to our current system and fifty bucks sounded fair for the equipment, installation, and setup work, so we signed on with FirstLine Security of Orem, Utah. During their presentation we learned that FirstLine was a Mormon company and although we don’t subscribe to their religion, we’ve always had great respect for their business practices.

A few months after the switch, we received a nasty letter from Security Maintenance Services, our previous monitoring company, demanding $413.54 in payment for the remaining portion of our previous contract with them. During their March presentation, the fellows from FirstLine had asked us about our current monitoring contract and we told them we had been with SMS for over five years and therefore the original two or three year contract we had originally signed had long-since expired.

In a subsequent demand for payment, SMS informed us that our contract with them had been automatically renewed for an additional two years each time the current contract had expired and our latest two-year contract had gone into force in December, 2002… just three months before FirstLine rang our doorbell. A copy of the original contract’s fine print was included in the letter and apparently we had signed off on allowing them to do this without notice.

Our experience with other service providers, e.g. the cell phone company, the cable TV company, the internet access company, etc. was “sign a contract with us for one or two years and in return we’ll give you a discount on the service.” Once the initial term had expired, we went on month-to-month billing and could cancel at any time without penalty. The business model seemed to be “absorb the cost of the equipment and installation to get it into their house, give them time to appreciate the service, and they’ll stay with us forever.” Sounds fair to me. Incentive to the customer equals sales; good service equals loyalty.

Fortunately I’m retired, am home almost every day, and have the time and tenacity to spend hours navigating phone trees, waiting endlessly on hold, and researching the internet. I was outraged that a company could renew a service contract with neither notice nor my signature and I was convinced that to do so would violate some local ordinance or state law.

My first call was to the California Department of Consumer Affairs which informed me that there was no law on the books preventing a service provider from renewing a contract without notice. They did suggest, however, that I try to negotiate with SMS by sending them a letter offering to settle for an amount less than they were demanding. SMS ignored my letter and instead sent another invoice for the full amount.

My next call was to my legislator’s office, and after explaining the situation to an office assistant, I received neither a phone call nor a letter back from my representative in Sacramento. Next I called the Consumer Watch departments of several Bay Area television stations, but none of them expressed interest in my story.

After several months fighting the injustice of it all, I finally capitulated in January 2004 and sent SMS a check for the full amount. In the interim, we had met Anthony, the service technician for FirstLine who came out in June 2003 to install new sensors on our back porch ($125.บบ) and again in September to replace a dining room window sensor and install two outdoor motion sensors ($280.บบ). During the ensuing three years, Anthony has also stopped by to replace sensor batteries, repair/replace sensors that have stopped operating, and other security system issues at no charge whatsoever. Like any electronic device, home security monitoring systems need periodic maintenance and the service response from FirstLine was stellar.

One Saturday night during the summer of 2003, Pat and I were sitting in the living room watching Bowling For Columbine on DVD when we noticed the motion-sensor activated light in our neighbor Tony’s driveway going on and off repeatedly. Assuming people were walking by on the sidewalk, we ignored it and continued to watch the movie. A few minutes later flashing lights and sirens got our attention, so we paused the movie and went outside to see what was going on.

The police had been chasing a car with five teenagers down our street when the teens lost control at the corner, bolted from the vehicle, and ran into the yards of our neighborhood to escape arrest. Across the street a neighbor’s wooden driveway fence had been broken down as had her next door neighbor’s back fence indicating that the desperadoes were heading away from our house. The next morning we discovered that our central air conditioning unit had been knocked askew on it’s foundation, a bird bath had been toppled, and a fiberglass rabbit marking the grave of one of our animals had been tipped over and broken. All three of these items were in the runway between our kitchen and our neighbor’s garage, behind an eight-foot-high wooden fence.

In other words, as we watched a movie in our living room and ignored the flashing of Tony’s yard light, our property was being invaded. Apparently our garden lights prevented the trespassers from going into our backyard for we could see where Tony’s TV satellite dish had been ripped off the back corner of his garage during their ascent from our property to his. Hence the outdoor motion sensors that Anthony installed for us in September.

Unfortunately, they never worked in either sunlight or rain and Anthony admitted to me that outdoor motion sensors were not a specialty of his company. In January of 2004, I hired GeoTech Security to install a separate outdoor security system for $1,432. Now I know when someone has stepped onto our front porch before they ring the doorbell. No other part of the property is accessible either without setting off an alarm.

So, security on one’s property in Oakland is a major concern and something I have managed for several years in our household. FirstLine’s quick response and Anthony’s level of expertise in handling the periodic issues was reassuring. Clearly we had made the right decision in signing on with them back in 2003 and I felt, through Anthony, that we had developed a personal relationship with the company… something that one does not experience with larger companies such as SBC, Comcast, Waste Management, et. al.

One thing we had learned during the three years of service with FirstLine was that security companies outsource the actual monitoring of the systems they install and maintain. We had received at least two letters from FirstLine indicating that we had been switched from one monitoring service to another. Hence, in three years, we’ve had our monitoring done by at least three different companies. We’ve also had our monthly monitoring fee raised twice. As anyone knows, fees for service increase over time. Lord knows the cable TV bill has gone up way more than ten dollars a month in the past three years, so we weren’t particularly concerned as long as we could still call FirstLine and have them send Anthony out whenever there was a problem.

Thursday evening, July 20th, I had a meeting with my Mac users group over in Pleasant Hill from seven to nine and when I returned home at 9:30, Pat met me outside to swap cars in the driveway and told me we had company. I noticed a large red pickup truck with Idaho license plates parked at our curb. Pat told me the visitors were from our security company and were here to swap out our current system for a newer model that used a cellphone chip to send alerts to the monitoring service thus circumventing the phone line vulnerability.

Sounded like a great idea to me, but I still thought it odd that FirstLine would show up unannounced to replace our system. The technician doing the installation was a surly young fellow named Travis who said little other than to inquire where certain sensors were located. Since it was ten o’clock at night and assuming he had been working all day, I dismissed his less-than-friendly attitude as wanting to get done and get home. Still, his behavior was not up to the standard of Mormon pleasantness I had become accustomed to with FirstLine employees, the majority of whom were on temporary work assignment in the Bay Area from Utah or Idaho.

I asked Travis if he could correct a problem with our outdoor motion system, even though I knew his company was not responsible for it. It involved lengthening a wire from an outdoor sensor to the monitoring box which, when first installed in our attic, had run harmlessly across the rafters in the floor. However, since then, I had installed flooring in the attic and the wire now ran across the floor. Before I could say, “And of course I’d pay you for your trouble,” Travis informed me it wasn’t his responsibility and that I’d have to pay him extra for the work.

We agreed on twenty bucks and he lengthened the wire which turned out to belong to the doorbell rather than to a motion sensor. He left at eleven o’clock and I had a gnawing feeling that something just wasn’t quite right. Pat needed to get to bed, so I let it drop.

Saturday we noticed that Travis had missed reprogramming a sensor on the front porch window, so I waited until Monday morning to call FirstLine to have him sent back out to correct the oversight. They had no idea what I was talking about and suggested I look at the paperwork to determine who had done the installation.

“You are now using ADT for monitoring services, aren’t you,” I asked?

Yes, they were, and perhaps I should call ADT to ask them about getting Travis back.

So I called ADT who admitted, yes, they do handle the monitoring for FirstLine, but they don’t do installation and I should be calling them. Back to FirstLine; back to ADT. I was stuck in and endless loop. Finally ADT checked its records more thoroughly and told me the installer was Icon Security and perhaps I should call them. Icon? Who’s Icon? I went through the paperwork the installers had left behind and, sure enough, there was one pink sheet that had the name Icon Security on it: no phone number; no address; just the company name. ADT supplied me with the contact number and I called.

Turns out, like FirstLine, Icon is also located in Utah, albeit Provo, not Orem, but still a Salt Lake City suburb. Perhaps FirstLine had been bought out and had changed its name. But if that were the case, why hadn’t they told me that when I first called? Eventually I spoke with Breton Stout who told me he was the one who had stopped by on Thursday evening and had Pat sign a contract for a new security system and monitoring service. Pat had never mentioned signing anything to me; was he sure?

Not skipping a beat, Breton explained the advantages of the new system and added that when Pat raised the issue of our payoff to SMS the last time we switched, he assured him that Icon would pay off any outstanding contract charges. Pat never mentioned this either. Breton went on to say they had written up a letter to be sent to FirstLine and Monitronics notifying them of our cancellation of their service and had Pat sign it. Again, Pat hadn’t mentioned this to me. But it was becoming clear that we had been switched without realizing it.

A closer look at the paperwork revealed we had 72 hours to cancel the order and revert our system and monitoring service back. By the time I found out what had actually happened from Breton, we had less than 36 hours left. I told him that although I was impressed with the new system Travis had installed, I felt he and his company had hoodwinked Pat into unwittingly switching our service. He quickly agreed to extend the 72-hour buyers’ regret window to 30 days and would send Travis over to fix the overlooked window sensor.

Switching back to FirstLine could be a problem: their monitoring unit had been removed, the sensors had been reprogrammed, as had the on/off switches on our keychain fobs. After my phone conversation with Breton, I understood how easily Pat had been deceived. Breton had been quick to apologize for any misunderstandings and deftly shifted the focus of the conversation to the benefits of his company’s product. Since FirstLine was also using ADT for monitoring, it seemed likely they would also have the same product Icon had installed.

After my previous Mobius loop of phone calls between FirstLine and ADT, I decided to call the personal cell phone number of Anthony, the local FirstLine technician who had been out to our house on several occasions during the past three years to fix errant sensors. Anthony told me FirstLine was aware that Icon had been actively stealing its customers and that I should call Wayne Tomlinson at their Orem office and tell him what had happened.

Wayne told me that FirstLine was in the process of filing a lawsuit against Icon for actively seeking out and switching their customers. He promised to look into the feasibility of installing the same system Icon had put in for us and what costs, if any, would be involved. Until I heard back from him, my best course of action was to stall Icon for time.

So I called Icon back and asked to speak with Breton Stout. They informed me that he was no longer in the Bay Area and had gone to Minneapolis on new business. My call was answered by Breton’s boss in Provo, Utah, Helaman Hurtado who assured me that the 72-hour buyer’s regret window would be extended until Breton returned to the Bay Area in a few weeks. He also agreed to email me a copy of the cancellation letter to Monitronics and Firstline that Pat had signed. When I pressed him to confirm that Icon would pay any contractual cancellation fees to Monitronics, he said that agreement was between Pat, me, and Breton. As for the overlooked front porch window sensor, he told me to contact Candice at the Pleasanton office and she would have someone come out to take care of it.

No one answered at the Pleasanton, California office (about ten miles from here), so I left a voice mail. It was Pat’s birthday and I had a dinner to get ready before he got home from work.

Tuesday morning I received a call from Candice who told me that Travis would be over by nine o’clock Wednesday morning to fix the front porch window sensor. Wednesday morning came and went. Travis rang our doorbell at a little after four o’clock, spent less than five minutes programming the sensor into the system, then informed me that although he was paid for initial installations, he was not compensated for housecalls, gas was expensive, and could I give him some money for his trip over here from Pleasanton.

I was floored by the request, but reached into my pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. He insisted he needed more than that. I wasn’t about to pull out my billfold and give him a twenty and told him I was sorry, but the five was the only cash I had on hand. After he left, I promptly went to my computer and sent an email off to both Breton Stout and Helaman Hurtado complaining about their level of customer service.

Thursday I received an email back from Helaman apologizing for Travis’ behavior, explaining that it was not their company policy to ever accept cash from customers. But the email went on to say that on occasion customers do tip their employees and some customers would consider it rude to decline the tip. Seemed to me I was getting a double message. He went on to say that Travis had been rebuked and ordered to return to our home, apologize, and give back the five bucks.

Customer service, not the five dollars, was the issue in my mind. With Breton already in Minneapolis, how long would Travis be in town? He was no Anthony from FirstLine and I dreaded having to work with him in the future, but also wondered who I’d get for service if he was transferred. The warning flags of dealing with Icon were fluttering in a hurricane gale at the top of my pole. However, I still hadn’t heard back from Wayne Tomlinson at FirstLine and decided to judge the sincerity of Travis’ apology when he arrived. Besides, it would give me an opportunity to question him on the working conditions at Icon.

The rest of Thursday passed with no communication or visit from Travis. When Pat arrived home Friday night he wanted to know why I hadn’t called FirstLine to get us reconnected. I told him that for five bucks, the smart thing for Travis to do would be to write an apology and mail it along with a five dollar bill and we’d give it until Monday morning for the mail to arrive.

By Monday morning, my mind was made up: we were going back to FirstLine no matter what it took. I had taken copious notes of all my communications with Icon and had even recorded my conversations with Helaman Hurtado. I concluded that my notes and recordings would be invaluable to FirstLine in their lawsuit against Icon and they’d jump at the opportunity to install a similar system at no cost to us in exchange for our well-documented testimony.

I called Wayne Tomlinson at FirstLine in Orem who was out of the office. I left a message for him to call me back at his earliest convenience. With my phone recorder at the ready, I called Helaman Hurtado at Icon and told him I hadn’t heard from Travis. He informed me that Travis no longer worked for them and had gone home to Idaho. He went on to tell me that Breton Stout would be back in the Bay Area from Minneapolis by the weekend and would contact me to conclude our contract. I didn’t tell him I had decided to go back to FirstLine, wanting to line my ducks up with Wayne first.

I called Wayne’s office on Tuesday morning and, again, he wasn’t available. I left another message but he hadn’t called back by the end of the day. Same routine on Wednesday and Thursday. Was he avoiding me? By Friday morning I was in a panic: Breton was due back on Saturday and I might possibly be his first order of business.

With Wayne still unavailable Friday morning, I asked to speak with anyone. According to “anyone,” FirstLine had sold off our account to Criticom nearly a year ago. No wonder I wasn’t getting call backs; we were no longer their customer. And, of course, Breton never showed up on Saturday nor was I contacted by Icon.

All of August passed with no word from Breton or anyone else at Icon. And in those weeks it finally dawned on me that I was operating from an outdated paradigm that postulated businesses make their money from happy customers. A newer business model has emerged whereby companies focus on size and making themselves attractive to larger corporations. Get in, get out, and keep those numbers increasing. Dissatisfied customers are an acceptable risk because the company only plans to keep them just long enough to be bought by someone else.

On Tuesday, August 29th, I sent an email to Breton Stout with a CC to his boss Helaman Hurtado:

Pat & I feel we're stuck in purgatory here while awaiting your return to conclude our business transaction as promised. We'd appreciate a clear-cut answer, even if it's not what we want to hear, over this interminable delay. Calls to the Pleasanton office indicate the phone has been disconnected or deactivated. For the record, my last contact with anyone from your company was on July 24th.


After receiving no response from either, I called Helaman at his corporate office in Provo on Thursday morning and left a message with his assistant to call me back. By the end of the day, he hadn’t. Pat and I went out to dinner with Bill and Gary, turning the security system on as we left. Shortly after our return at nine o’clock, and just after we had settled down in the living room to watch TV, our neighbor Tony rang the doorbell and told us to pick up the Voice Mail message from ADT who had also called him.

ADT had received a signal from our system indicating that our Radio Backup had failed and was currently off-line. They went on to say that this was the second such incident and that it had been off-line from August 22nd through the 30th, but had managed to restore itself. They had me run a test on the system which restored the signal at 9:17, fifty-two minutes after it had first gone out. The system test also indicated that we had no phone-line communication between our system and ADT and that our panic button was sending a simple burglary signal to them rather than the panic alert it was intended to send.

After spending two hours in phone tree hell the next morning, I finally managed to speak with Jonathan at Icon to fill him in on what ADT had reported about our security system and he promised to get back to me. Forty-five minutes later, Helaman himself called me, apologized for not having answered my Tuesday email, and wanted to know what ADT had to say. When I got to the part about the lack of phone communication from our unit to ADT he said it wasn’t necessary because we had the Radio Backup.

Yes, but that wasn’t currently working and without it, we had no security monitoring whatsoever. Oh, but we’ll fix that he said; you don’t need the landline hookup. In fact, he went on to say, most folks who have the Radio Backup installed do so because they don’t have any landline telephones in their homes. Well, we do Helaman… two of them in fact, and I believe it is called a Radio Backup because it is intended to supplement the land-lines, not replace them and redundancy was what sold us on your system. Clearly Icon had never hooked up the system to our existing telephone lines in the first place.

He admitted to me that the Pleasanton office had indeed been closed and gave me some song and dance about it being the end of the summer and pulling all the employees back to Utah for training. He’d try to get a technician over to our house today but admitted that might be difficult and due to the Labor Day weekend, we’d probably not see a technician before Tuesday. However, he’d call back later and let me know for sure. He never did. Nor has a technician arrived as I write this on Sunday afternoon.

While looking up internet links for this story, I noticed that FirstLine's website has totally changed since my last visit. They now appear to have veered away from home security and into cell phone service with home security service as an add-on.

_____________________________
Early Tuesday morning I received a call from Pinnacle Security which informed me that they had been hired by Icon to repair the problems with our system uncovered by ADT. One of their technicians would be coming over late that afternoon. Ninety minutes later I received a call from “Winston” who told me he had received the assignment but wouldn’t be able to get to Oakland before Wednesday. What choice did I have?

“Winston” had some interesting things to say about the security industry in general and Icon in particular. In fact, he had worked for Icon previously but had left when he began to believe they were engaging in shady business practices. When he opened up our alarm box to begin his repair work, he immediately discovered that Travis had neglected to tape his interior wiring connections. He pointed out two bare connections that were barely a centimeter apart and told me had the two ever touched they would have started a fire that could have burned our house down.

“Winston” readily admitted that as a Pinnacle technician he was experienced with Ademco alarm systems and not the General Electric Genie system that we had. Most of the time he spent reprogramming our system was actually spent on his cell phone trying to locate someone who could tell him how to go about it.

After completing his work, “Winston” gave me a fascinating insight to how the security industry works. The best salesmen, he told me, can make several hundred thousand dollars a year. Installers typically earn about $40 per installation with incentives built in. Most are young kids (late teens/early twenties) who are recruited back in the company’s home territory and sent to the areas where the salesmen are currently canvassing. Room & board is automatically deducted from the installers’ earnings and many quit and go home disillusioned and owing the company money. Hmmm… sounds like Travis. “Winston” went on to say that cheating salesmen and installers out of their money was a common complaint in the industry. In fact, he told me, he wouldn’t be surprised if Icon tried to avoid paying Pinnacle for his work on our system and in turn, Pinnacle refused to pay him.

After paying the salesmen, the installers, and for the cost of equipment, the companies have typically invested $500 to $600 in acquiring a new customer whose contract they then sell to larger monitoring services such as ADT for $1,100 to $1,300. Many of the security firms are Mormon startups based in Utah and, according to “Winston,” the State of Utah is aggressively taking many of them to court based on the overwhelming amount of complaints it has received.

Pat and I spent the next two days going back over his credit card statements to insure that, as promised, we wouldn’t be double-billed. Records indicated that ADT had billed Pat’s card on August 23rd as expected. But his latest statement indicated an additional charge from IASG on September 5th. The records showed that we had been billed by SMS up through June of 2003. The first check to FirstLine had been written in April of 2003 and electronic transfers from Pat’s account had been made to them up through May of 2004. Starting in June of 2004, the electronic transfers were made to Integrated Alarm and the billing name became IASG in March of 2005. A Google search indicated that IASG stood for Integrated Alarm Services Group, Inc., so I assume it’s the same company.

On September 12th, I called Helaman Hurtado at Icon headquarters in Utah to let him know we were still being billed by our “old” monitoring service as well as by ADT. He promised to send us a check for the last two bills and get the old contract canceled. However, he was surprised when I told him the firm was IASG and asked if I had their phone number. I didn’t. Never had it. Never talked to them. If there were any problems with my system, I called FirstLine.

Then he went on to tell me that they would have to send someone out from Pinnacle again because “Winston’s” work had resulted in ADT issuing a new account number for us and we would have to sign a new contract. When I told him that “Winston” had difficulty programming our Genie system because Pinnacle dealt exclusively with Ademco systems, Helaman was stunned.

“You have a Genie system? General Electric? I thought we had installed an Ademco system!”

I went to our box in the hallway and checked. It was a Genie system. Helaman admitted that he had made a mistake and that when he contacted Pinnacle he would let them know that it was a Genie. An hour later he called back to let me know that he had located a customer service number for IASG, and that I should call them and find out what the payoff would be to cancel our contract with them.

I spoke with Carol at customer service for IASG in Las Vegas who told me to write a cancellation letter and send it to them 90 days prior to the end of our current contract on March 27, 2007. The letter needed to be written by us, not Icon, and sent to IASG’s corporate headquarters in Albany, New York. The payoff on the unused portion of the current contract would be $226.74. I then sent an email to Helaman Hurtado at ICON relaying the info from IASG and informing him that, coupled with the two payments we’ve already made, he should cut us a check for $302.32.

Nine days seemed to me more than a reasonable amount of time to wait for Pinnacle to contact me and send out a technician to reprogram our system to the new ADT account number. I left a message to that effect on Helaman Hurtado’s voice mail on Thursday, September 21st. I called again on Friday and was surprised to hear him answer his line directly. He sounded stunned that I hadn’t heard yet from Pinnacle and promised I’d hear back from him or them by the end of the day after I told him that starting that evening Pat would be on vacation for the next two weeks and we were afraid to leave the house.

As expected, no one called at all. Monday morning I received a call from Jeff at Pinnacle Security in Utah. We agreed on an appointment at 10 a.m. Tuesday, September 26th for his technician, Marcus, to come out to our house and make the necessary adjustments. On Tuesday morning, Marcus called me at 8:30 a.m. to reschedule: he didn’t know what Jeff was thinking when he scheduled him early in the day when Jeff should have known that he was scheduled to spend the day with his supervisor; the earliest he could make it to our house would be between four and five p.m. And, by the way, did I know what he was being sent over to do because no one had told him! Marcus did show up at the agreed upon time and, to the best of our knowledge, got our system working appropriately. Now we're just waiting for the promised check to payoff our old contract with IASG.


UPDATE: June 13, 2007
We've received several emails inquiring as to whether we ever received the promised pay-off from ICON. No, we never got the money back from ICON whose salesman promised to pay it. Ultimately, for a couple of hundred dollars it wasn't worth the effort as we concluded we'd have to sue them to get it. Attorneys, filing fees, etc. would have been more than we could have recouped, assuming we prevailed in court.


UPDATE: July 21, 2009
Magazine CoverA Google search of my own name, which I do periodically just to see what is out there, produced a cover article in the June 2008 edition of Utah Business Magazine which gives a great in-depth peek into the summer sales job industry. Although UBM requires you to sign up on their website to retrieve the article from their archives, it is reprinted elsewhere and can be accessed directly from SummerSales.org, an online magazine targeted at college students looking for summer jobs and contains company profiles for all of the Utah businesses that might eventually knock on your door. The title of the article is Opportunity Knocks and features the plethora of door-to-door sales companies that have sprung up in the Provo-Orem "hub" of Utah, how they operate, how their salesmen get paid (or not), their successes and their bankruptcies.

I vaguely recall a phone call from a lady at Utah Business Magazine who had found this article on the web and interviewed me over the phone regarding my experiences with these companies. I'm happy to report that the article quotes me accurately and in the light which I tried to convey. And, for the record, I received a knock on my door just yesterday from yet another well-dressed young man offering to update my security system. As I have done with each who have knocked since this article was first written, I invited him into the house, showed him this article on our website, then sent him on his way with my business card containing this website address and the admonition that he read the entire article at his leisure to get a sense of who he's working for.