Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.

Dear Action Line:

I wanted to let you know that today we received two phone calls from customers questioning if we had people out randomly checking their security system. In short, there were door-to-door sales people using an old line, "ma'am your 'alarm company's' (whatever company the sign out front says) system is not working correctly and we need to check it for you. I just wanted to give you a heads-up in case you hear the same from someone else.

Dear Reader:

Thank you for letting us know of the activity going on in your neighborhood. This is definitely a hot topic here at the BBB.

Typical consumer complaints about door-to-door scams involve unqualified contractors, sales pitches from unethical home security system salespeople, questionable handymen and students selling items such as magazine subscriptions to help pay tuition expenses. In some cases these consumers and the student salespeople are unwitting victims of scam magazine-selling operations that collect credit card numbers.

Every year hundreds of complaints to BBBs across the nation detail aggressive and misleading sales tactics and unsupported claims to pressure consumers into buying bogus products, magazine subscriptions that were never received and food products that were not of the high quality that was promised.

While not all door-to-door salespeople are shady, consumers must be extremely careful to prevent losing hundreds or thousands of dollars and even risk having a would-be contractor scouting a home for a future burglary or poking through unattended personal documents.

BBBs across the country hear about shoddy workmanship, substandard materials and out-of-state contractors who are unregistered and operating illegally in the state.

Some are trying to pass themselves off as legitimate business people but may be uninsured, incompetent or con artists who will take a deposit, or do little or no work and disappear.

BBB serving Central California offers tips to protect yourself when a stranger comes knocking at your door to offer goods or services:

Don't be pressured: Legitimate sellers won't push you into a "today only" offer or use other high-pressure tactics. Listen carefully to what they're telling you and their tone.

Ask them to leave behind relevant information: A legitimate door-to-door seller will respect your wishes and leave with you relevant information describing the goods or services and containing contact information to allow you to make an informed decision.

Research and verify credentials: Always makes sure the person at the door is who they say they are. Check ID. Also, to find your own contractor, go to cencal.bbb.org and obtain three bids based upon the same materials and labor. If there's a big price discrepancy, ask for an explanation.

Ask for a contract, proof of insurance and registration: A contract protects you. Make sure you understand it, that it is detailed and contains all verbal promises.

Remember the law: State law regulates that a non-licensed contractor cannot bid or charge more than $500 in labor and materials. Also, a licensed contractor cannot ask for a down payment of more than 10 percent of the contract price or $1,000, whichever is less.

-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or joey@cencal.bbb.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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