Magazine sales work ends in tale of terror
By Fred Lucas
A story Sunday about a company that sells magazine subscriptions door to door incorrectly implied that New Milford police would not investigate allegations of assault against company representatives. A quote by officer Robert Kirchner referred to minor infractions allegedly committed by the Great Lakes Circulation sales force.
Three months ago, 23-year-old Brian Jones, of Galloway, N.J., saw a job ad that offered the chance to have fun, see the country and make $1,000 to $1,500 per week. The job was selling magazine subscriptions door to door for a company called Great Lakes Circulation. Jones did, indeed, get to travel to 12 states.
But he said he didn’t have much fun.
Jones said he worked 80 hours a week, was cheated out of commissions and worked in a culture of drug use and violence. When Jones didn’t meet his sales quota in New Milford on Wednesday, he said he was punched in the face, shoved out of a van that carried a crew of peddlers and left behind. Jones spent the night walking the sidewalks of New Milford.
A New York-based group, Parent Watch, which monitors door-to-door sales firms, got him a hotel for the next night and he caught a ride home Friday to the Atlantic City area.
"I’ll go back to work in a casino,” Jones said. "That’s what I was doing before. Maybe save up enough to go to college.”
Jones wasn’t the only Great Lakes peddler to find trouble in New Milford. Police Officer Robert Kirchner said three others who were knocking on doors late into the night were cited for solicitation and vending violations. He said illegal soliciting is a common problem in New Milford, and police encourage people to call when solicitors come to their door at night. Kirchner said police have no plans to pursue charges against Great Lakes officials for allegedly assaulting or abandoning Jones. "We don’t go after the company,” he said. "We go after people doing the soliciting.”
According to Parent Watch, what Jones described is common in the door-to-door sales industry. People in their early teens to early 20s get involved in going town to town to sell subscriptions. Parent Watch says young employees frequently work in an environment where there is heavy drug use and where workers are often bullied by supervisors, denied medical care and told to cheat consumers and lie to police.
Representatives of Great Lakes Circulation, based in Evergreen, Colo., declined to answer a reporter’s questions over the telephone. The company asked that written questions be submitted. After it received them, the company sent back a short response: "Unfortunately, you do not have the correct information, but our company has chosen not to comment.”
The Denver office of the Better Business Bureau reported receiving 49 consumer complaints against Great Lakes in the past three years. All but seven have been resolved. The complaints dealt with advertising, sales, delivery, refunds and billing.
A receptionist with the Philadelphia-based National Field Selling Association, which represents the door-to-door sales industry, said Friday that the association doesn’t comment on the industry’s practices. The NFSA has 17 members, according to its Web site. "Our members are devoted to the highest standards of ethics in the promotion and selling of products and services,” the Web site said.
Brian Jones began traveling with Great Lakes three months ago. He said the group of about 40 people was a mixture of teens and adults in their early 20s. He said managers traveling with the crews told them to say anything to make a sell.
"It’s a complete and total scam,” Jones said. "We’ve had kids selling magazines that we don’t have. Kids say it’s for college, or to raise money for the local high school. It’s for none of that (stuff).”
Jones said medical treatment was denied to sales crew members and intimidation was common. Punishment for not meeting a sales quota varied from being forced to stay in a hotel room to being assaulted. "The worst thing I saw was 10 people jump out and beat up one person,” he said.
He said the sales manager would sometimes lock people out of the van, and bump them with it. He said the manager also broke the noses of two people.
While the crew went door to door in New Milford, it stayed at a hotel in Southington. The group would always stay in a different town than it worked in, Jones said, apparently to stop unhappy workers from walking off, gathering their belongings and heading home.
Jones said the group was under so much pressure to meet its sales quota the sales crew manager ordered the young peddlers to knock on doors until after midnight. This prompted the complaints to police. Kirchner, the New Milford police officer, said all of the citations were handed out after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Jones said the crew didn’t have soliciting permits because the company believes it is cheaper to pay the fines than to get a permit.
Earlene Williams, executive director for Parent Watch, said this is a common tactic. She said it leaves the young people with a criminal record, and the company with just a small fine to pay off. "The majority of these kids need to work and the companies aren’t careful in recruitment,” Williams said.
New Milford isn’t the only town in the region to have experience with such solicitors. "We’ve had kids selling magazines claiming they get points for school, but not recently,” Danbury police Capt. Arthur Sullo said. "A lot of people (approached by door-to-door salespeople) don’t even call. They just say ‘no’ and close the door. It’s like they say — buyer beware.”
Danbury requires anyone with an inventory worth more than $25 to buy a $200 peddling license before selling door to door. "This way we know who’s in town doing business,” Sullo said. "It’s easy for someone to claim they’re a peddler, find no one home and break into the house.”
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection completed an investigation in May of five companies that conduct door-to-door sales. "There were misleading and deceptive statements used by the young people to get the magazine sales,” said Richard Maloney, director of trade for the department. "But the magazines did seem to show up.”
For Jones, the beginning of the end came Wednesday afternoon. Jones said a crew manager dropped him off in a New Milford neighborhood and told him to make five sales in the next hour. At the end of the hour, Jones had made only one sale. This earned him a punch in the face, he said. Another crew member pushed him out of the van on the manager’s order, he said. That was about 6 p.m. With his belongings in the Southington hotel, Jones had no money to buy dinner or get a hotel room. He just walked around New Milford for the rest of the night. He said he didn’t go to the police because he didn’t think they would care about someone who sells magazine subscriptions.
About 7 a.m. Thursday, he went into Town Hall and took a nap for about 30 minutes before he was asked to leave. At that point, he got directions to the library. There he could surf the Internet, he said. "I met a lady two weeks ago who told me if I wanted to get out of this, there is a Web site where you can contact someone to give you a ride home,” Jones said.
He sent an e-mail.
At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Earlene Williams at Parent Watch got the e-mail. She arranged for a room for Jones at the Homestead Inn in New Milford. She also arranged for a sandwich and a bottle of soda, the first meal he had since lunch the day before.
On Friday, he got a ride home.
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