Exercising caution when a door-to-door salesman comes calling

There may not be as many Fuller Brush men going door to door as there used to be, but the ''direct selling'' business continues to grow, along with many of the pitfalls.

Since 1977, the amount of merchandise sold through direct selling has increased from $6 billion to more than $7.5 billion and includes some 5 million salespeople, according to the Direct Selling Association, an industry trade group.

To help set up some guidelines for those salespeople, as well as to protect their customers, the Federal Trade Commission in 1974 adopted the so-called ''cooling-off period'' regulation. Last month, the FTC announced it is reviewing the rule and accepting comment on it from the public.

Essentially, the rule requires door-to-door salesmen to tell every customer orally that he has three days in which to return the item. The customer doesn't need a reason; he can just say, ''I don't want it, after all.''

The way the FTC sees it, door-to-door, or direct, selling includes any transaction that is completed ''at a place other than the place of business of the seller.'' In addition to brushes and magazines, this can include items sold through personal contacts such as Amway home care products and things sold at parties, like Tupperware. It also includes insurance policies, encyclopedia sets , and some home repair services.

Whether credit goes to the 1974 regulation or to the growth of more enlightened direct sales companies, most customers seem fairly satisfied with the companies' practices and their purchases, although a sizable minority are not. Two independent studies done for the FTC, which are also under review, found that three-fifths of the customers said they were notified of their right to cancel, and two-fifths said they received written cancellation information.

The studies also found that nearly 75 percent of the companies go beyond the three-day rule and permit customers to cancel orders within 14 days. They also reported that 52 percent of the companies said the rule increased their costs, although most felt the added expense was worthwhile because of greater public confidence and the reduction of many high-pressure sales tactics.

High-pressure sales tactics still do exist, however. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with them.

One of the more common tricks, says the Better Business Bureau (BBB), is used by high-pressure salemen both in and out of the stores: ''Buy now, before the price goes up.''

Another line comes from those involved in home repair: ''Your roof is in really bad shape.'' Anyone considering the expense of a roof repair or a new roof or any other major home repair should have at least one other - customer-initiated - evaluation of its condition.

For dealing with these and other door-to-door salespeople, the BBB has the following suggestions:

* Remember that your first defense is to refuse to let the salesman take any of your time.

* Demand identification. If in doubt about the company a person claims to represent, call your local BBB before you let him in.

In addition to the BBB, most states have consumer protection bureaus, often attached to the attorney general's office, that can tell you if they have a record of any complaints against a company. Many cities and counties have similar offices.

* Never sign an order just to get rid of an aggressive salesperson.

* Never sign a sales contract that has blank spaces, and be sure the salesman hasn't predated the date of the sale on your receipt.

* Even though the FTC requires a three-day cooling off period, some people never buy from a door-to-door salesman on the first visit. If the product interests them, they take time to check local stores to see if they carry the same thing at a lower price. Or you can call other companies that offer the product or service. In addition to home repairs, this applies to financial products, like insurance. Maybe the salesman is right: You don't have enough life insurance. But that does not make his the best value.

So, if the salesman is working for a reputable firm, he won't mind if you tell him to come back in a few days or next week.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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