Monday, July 14, 2008

Trio recalls horror of magazine-selling stint

BoSacks Speaks Out: We get these horror stories from time to time. This article was filled with more intimate detail than usual. It is a sad statement that this kind of old style practice continues even for the smallest or any percentage of magazine circulation.

The counterpoint to the story is, of course, the honest local high school or church groups which do good work and which are, in fact, actually local.

I think it is important for us all to acknowledge that these seedy situations are sadly still alive and well, thriving somewhere in our circulation systems and perhaps even in our own home towns. I acknowledge that it is not directly we who perpetrate the crimes and the offences, but it can't be denied we are involved, however distantly, in this process.

"He who profits by a crime commits it"
Seneca (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)

Trio recalls horror of magazine-selling stint

When Sue Rodabaugh answered a help-wanted ad that turned out to be from an itinerant door-to-door magazine sales company, she hoped for fun, travel and an opportunity to see a bit of the country while making money to catch up on bills.

But Rodabaugh, who accepted an offer to travel to the Philadelphia area to join a street sales crew, along with her boyfriend and their roommate, said they found neither fun nor a bootstrap opportunity.

Instead, she said they were dropped off in unfamiliar locations, forced to walk up to 10 hours a day and were housed with up to 40 other young salespeople in a threadbare New Jersey motel.

The 19-year-old, her boyfriend, George Tibbetts, 23, and their roommate, Derek Isbister, 21, left before completing a three-day training period when Rodabaugh's grandmother agreed to wire them bus fare.

But along the way, the Attleboro trio said they witnessed lying and misrepresentation by magazine salespeople, rampant drug use and mistreatment of crew members.
In one instance, she said, one saleswoman stole checks from a residential mailbox and coerced her to sign them - presumably so they could be cashed.

"It was unbelievable," Tibbetts said. "We were all looking at each other, asking one another what are we doing here?"

Rodabaugh said she and her friends were desperate to earn money, all having lost their jobs within the same week. But she now regrets urging the others to take the chance.

"I can't believe I was so naive to go along with it," said Rodabaugh, who along with the men have since told their story to the FBI.

Rodabaugh and Tibbetts said that after agreeing initially to take a bus to Philadelphia, they were given tickets to Wilmington, Del., where they were picked up by a crew representative.

As trainees, each was given $20 a day to help them get started. Most of the time, however, they were broke.

Crew members and trainees performed daily calisthenics and attended meetings at which their handlers "amped up" their charges by having them repeat slogans and sales routines.

Nights were devoted to partying, punctuated with drug use and underage drinking, Tibbetts said.

During their days on the road, Tibbetts and Rodabaugh said they spent up to 10 hours a day walking and canvassing neighborhoods through 100-degree heat mixed with thunderstorms.

Crews were transported from neighborhood to neighborhood in vans whose drivers were sometimes so reckless that Tibbets said he literally had to hang onto his seat at speeds up to 80 mph.
Tibbetts said he and his friends weren't the only ones shocked by the conditions and business practices of the crew. Eight other prospects also dropped out over a three-day period.

Sadly, said Earlene Williams, director of Parent Watch, which tracks the activities of itinerant magazine solicitors, such reports are neither rare nor isolated to major metropolitan areas.

Labor abuses against crew members, mostly young and with few skills or job prospects, are widespread, she said.

In the past, sales crew members who failed to produce or stray from the rules have been beaten, had their commissions withheld , been abruptly fired and dropped off at the side of the road, she said.

Sometimes, members who make their team look bad by not selling enough subscriptions are subject to isolation or humiliating treatments, like being forced to run a gauntlet of jeering fellow sales people.

Often, young women end up sleeping with their titular managers or supervisors.

"It's one way to protect yourself," Williams said.

That's not the worst that can happen.

Phil Ellenbecker's teenage daughter worked for an itinerant sales crew for only two days in 1999 before a van, driven by a serial traffic offender, overturned in Janesville, Wis., killing her and half the 14 young salespeople inside.

Ellenbecker later formed the Dedicated Memorial Parents Group to expose abuses in the door-to-door sales industry.

Contrary to enticements found in advertisements, Ellenbecker said, most crew members earn relatively little in commissions. And with $20 or more a day deducted for hotel costs, many members end up heavily in debt to the operators.

"It can be compared to indentured servitude," Ellenbecker said.

It's different for those who run the crews. They reap the benefits of profits earned by the salespeople who work for them.

On his MySpace site, the supervisor of the crew that employed Tibbetts and Rodenbaugh claimed to earn from $45,000 to $60,000 per year.

Neither the supervisor, the company that employs him nor the National Field Sales Association, which represents door-to-door sales organizations, returned calls from a reporter.

Howard Polskin, a representative of the Magazine Publisher's Association industry umbrella group, said subscriptions obtained through door-to-door sales represent a tiny fraction - estimated at 1 percent or less - of the magazine business.

He said the MPA has established strict guidelines for solicitors that require background checks for sales personnel and ban false or deceptive selling practices.

A statement released by the MPA said the group "has long urged its members to identify any subscriptions" coming from organizations that prey on the vulnerable or pose a danger to the public, "and recommends that its members cease doing business with any company that does not fully comply with the law."

Nevertheless, salespeople are constantly under pressure from their bosses to make sales quotas, watchdog groups say.

Rodabaugh said that during her sojourn in a vehicle with three other women, salespeople frequently represented themselves as local residents to gain the trust of potential customers. She said one worker took a box of blank checks from one house's mailbox - a federal offense - and coerced her to endorse them.

Subscription orders are frequently paid by check.

Williams said crew members typically work as independent contractors to avoid minimum wage laws and other requirements for employees.

Workers usually bunk three to four to a hotel room and are dispatched on their daily rounds in vans driven by a car handler. Crews are usually dropped off and picked up four to five times a day, knocking on doors in different neighborhoods.

After two or more weeks based in a particular region, crews move on to other parts of the country.

Salespeople are usually given a quota of five sales a day or 30 sales a week, Williams said, which can be raised later based on production.

Those who fulfill certain sales criteria may be told they can earn points toward a $1,000 prize or a trip to Disney World.

A 2007 investigation by The New York Times, however, found that many crew members made little money, saved less and were subject to violence and taunting.

The report said the earnings of many members was kept on the books for later payment, rather than paid to them immediately.

Many states, but not Massachusetts, have attempted to control traveling crews by requiring permits for door-to-door solicitations. But even in those states, companies often flout the rules, moving their operations rapidly to stay ahead of law enforcement.

While riding with a sales crew as a trainee in New Jersey, Rodabaugh said her van driver was stopped several times for not having the proper permits, and then was yelled at when her crew did not make enough sales.

State Rep. Cleon Turner, D-Yarmouth, has been trying to push through a bill that would require door-to-door sales firms to register with local police before beginning sales campaigns. And citizens would be able to have their homes placed on a "no-knock" list if they don't want solicitors calling at their doors.

The bill, which was promoted by the Yarmouth Police, was occasioned by reports of crimes, harassment and intimidation during and after walk-up solicitations, Yarmouth police Lt. Steven G. Xiarhos said.

So far, however, the bill has made little progress. A few Bay State communities, such as Amesbury, have adopted local ordinances requiring salespeople to register with the police.

Crimes by door-to-door solicitors are all too common.

Ellenbecker's group, which often aids police in investigating crimes related to door-to-door selling, currently has 27 alleged felony cases on its books, including a woman customer who was raped and murdered by a salesman.

In May, Beverly police arrested a 25-year-old Philadelphia man on a charge of assaulting a 13-year-old girl near her home. Police, who said the man tried to grab the teenager, classified the incident as an attempted abduction.

Both the suspect and two companions working for a magazine-selling crew were convicted felons, according to the police report.

The same trio also visited several other Massachusetts communities last spring, including Seekonk.

Most sales crews are run by independent companies rather than magazine publishers. Selling organizations get their magazine supply either through contracts with publishers or through clearinghouses linked with individual sales organizations.

The third-party connection makes it possible for publishers to eschew any responsibility for sales crews or their tactics while still reaping the benefits of subscription revenue, said Parent Watch's Williams.

In most states, door-to-door salesmen are subject to little regulation, Ellenbecker said.

However, the National Field Selling Association maintains a code of ethics for sales organizations to promote fair treatment of salespeople and to keep out criminals.

For example, the NFSA code requires that blind ads for sales crews contain "sufficient information so that an individual may know the basic nature of the offer."

However, an advertisement placed in The Sun Chronicle by the sales group that hired the local trio made no mention of selling magazines or where or under what circumstances trainees would live or earn money.

A series of ads placed by the same company on Internet help-wanted sites carried the enticement, "Live Like A Rock Star."

The NFSA code also specifies that background checks are to be conducted to ensure that salespeople are of good character.

Tibbetts and Rodenbaugh said they were told about the background checks, but were not aware that any checks were actually conducted on them.

The NFSA, which did not respond to a Sun Chronicle reporter's phone call, does not publish a list of the members who subscribe to its code on its Web site.

Although disgusted with what they called abusive treatment, unsafe driving and deceptive practices, the Attleboro trio said they're happy about at least one thing.

"We're glad to be back," Tibbetts said.

Ellenbecker, whose daughter died under conditions similar to those endured by the local trio, said he hopes consumers who know the facts won't patronize sales crews whose members are likely to be exploited young people.

"If someone comes to your door, and you don't know them or can't be certain they're with a legitimate group, don't do business with them," he said. "You're just feeding the monster."

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