How to back out of door-to-door buys

When an elderly woman recently let a salesman into her Providence, R.I., home to chat about emergency paging devices, she may not have expected a marathon sales pitch.

He showed up at 2 p.m., went to his car at dinnertime and sat in it while she ate, then returned for another round. After six hours, she bought the pager, according to the local district attorney's office, which processed the complaint and ultimately pressed the company to make restitution.

Door-to-door salespeople like that may be hard to combat. But in many cases, consumers have the final say - even after they have signed on the dotted line.

That's because of the Federal Trade Commission's "cooling-off rule" for door-to-door sales. It gives consumers the right to reject a sale, lease, or rental agreement on any product or service valued at $25 or more, as long as the deal is conducted away from the company's main or permanent branch office. And it's good for 72 hours.

"It applies to sales even when you invited someone into your home," says Howard Shapiro, an FTC spokesman.

The rule requires that the seller disclose to the buyer, both orally and in writing, the buyer's right to rescind a sales agreement. They have to disclose a way of contacting the seller, and the consumer has three days to pull the plug, excluding Sundays and holidays. This notice must be in the language of the original sales pitch.

With more and more Americans working long hours and running from soccer games to PTA meetings to dance recitals, door-to-door solicitors are having trouble finding an audience at home. As a result, some telemarketers for local companies call ahead, setting appointments to come to a consumer's home to demonstrate products or services.

These types of sales likewise fall under the cooling-off rule because they also take place away from the seller's main place of business.

The rule also applies to other popular marketing methods, such as organizers staging sales presentations at hotels or convention centers. Even college kids in their dorm rooms are protected.

Senior citizens have a special reason to be aware of these rights, because they are home more frequently and can be kinder to people dropping in unannounced. A retiree advocacy group, AARP, acknowledges the potential problem, noting that while many door-to-door sales are legitimate, some are not.

While some door-to-door retailers may push clients to buy things they don't want or need, Fuller Brush Co. salesman Eugene Barbie says that has never been the case in his 50 years with the company. "We're very careful about how we treat our customers," says Mr. Barbie. "They're making our living for us."

Barbie has regular clients in his West Los Angeles territory, people he knows by name and who can call him whenever they need merchandise. While his order pads contain notices of the cooling-off rule, he says that before and since that regulation came into effect, he has treated customers as he'd like to be treated himself.

"Often, I give [customers] outs so they don't feel like they're being pressured," he says.

Still, as AARP points out, "you can choose stores you will patronize and can walk out if you want to, but you have little choice about the type of salesperson who comes to your door."

"It's a problem because it involves the privacy of your home," said Vivian Spencer, director of consumer protection for the Rhode Island Attorney General's office.

The cooling-off rule is not absolute. Some exceptions include sales of securities, real estate, or insurance. It also doesn't apply to sales of automobiles, provided the seller has at least one permanent place of business. Arts or crafts sold at fairs and goods and services not intended primarily for personal, family, or household purposes qualify as exceptions, too.

Every state also has some type of home-solicitation law, says Kevin Grimes, an attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho, who advises sellers on how to abide by the rules. State statutes may be more strict than federal regulations, he says, so consumers may want to contact the consumer-protection division of their state attorney general's office for clarification.

Attorney Grimes says most consumers have some "vague notion" that there is a three-day cooling-off period that will help them. But, he adds, "most folks don't have much understanding of when and where the law applies." Any problems with violations of the cooling-off rule should be reported to state authorities or the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Washington, D.C., 20580 (877-FTC-HELP).

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