Lawmakers again try to regulate door-to-door sales

Associated Press/January 20, 2004

Knoxville -- Two years ago, a door-to-door magazine salesman raped and stabbed to death a Knox County grandmother, but area lawmakers were unable to persuade their colleagues to regulate the industry.

This May, a salesman affiliated with the same company raped a LaVergne mother in front of her 2-month old son while in November a registered sex offender selling magazines for another business was accused of fondling a 6-year-old.

All three men had criminal histories.

Sen. Tim Burchett and Rep. Steve Buttry, both Knoxville Republicans, hope those incidents will generate more support for their bill, which would require registration and background checks on door-to-door salespeople.

"It just makes sense to try to find some way to make sure that if you have people going door-to-door they are not felons,'' Buttry told The Knoxville News Sentinel. "I do not see any problem requiring anyone coming into our state to sell door-to-door having to have a background check and to register at the state level.''

ParentWatch, a watchdog group that has been monitoring the industry for years, says that since 2000, door-to-door salespeople have been implicated in 13 cases of rape or sexual assault and four cases of murder.

"The crimes are related to the casual hiring practices of this industry generally,'' said Earlene Williams, executive director of ParentWatch. "They are all in a hurry to hire as many people as quickly as they can so they can quickly get them on the road selling. Sometimes, as we can see from these cases in Tennessee, they bring in some very dangerous people.''

Each year, thousands of people, mostly age 18-24, join traveling sales crews that move rapidly around the country. Each day, sellers are dropped off in residential neighborhoods to peddle their wares, mostly magazine subscriptions or household cleansers.

But the numbers and the types of products being sold door to door are increasing. Since the national "do not call'' list has cut millions of people off from potential sales pitches, some companies have already returned to door-to-door sales, and others are contemplating it.

The traveling sales crew industry has successfully avoided significant regulation for decades. Only three states regulate it, and there are virtually no federal restrictions, even though it is common for crews selling magazine subscriptions or household cleaning products to travel through many states.

Civil lawsuits filed in the Knox County and LaVergne cases claim American Community Services and other defendants were negligent in hiring criminals as door-to-door salesmen.

"It would be nice if these companies would do a better job of checking these people out before they dump them in Tennessee,'' said Wally Kirby, director of the Tennessee District Attorney General's Conference. "And I would be surprised if the terms of the paroles of some of the people they hire would allow them to leave their state.''

Burchett said it will be hard to pass legislation regulating the industry.

He said there likely will be opposition from "legitimate and honorable'' organizations such as Mary Kay, Avon and Amway. "But I believe a way can be found to do what we need to do without hurting them.''

In 2002, the U.S. Senate approved legislation that would have brought sales crew members under the protection of federal labor standards law, but the measure failed in the House.

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., who doesn't usually advocate for new regulations on business, co-sponsored the bill in the House. "It was legitimate legislation,'' Duncan said recently. "And I still think something should be done. There is not a business or industry that is not regulated in some way, but this industry operates with almost no regulation at all, and that has led to some of these abuses of employees as well as customers.''

Nathan T. Edwards, president of the National Field Selling Association, said there are already numerous local regulations that most traveling sales crews comply with, and that new federal regulations are not needed.

"The overwhelming majority of people in this industry have the same concern about someone knocking on their door or the door of their family,'' he said.

But officials in Knox County and LaVergne say the sales crews that included the murderer and rapist ignored ordinances requiring them to register.

"They almost never bother to get the permits they are supposed to,'' said LaVergne Police Department Detective David Loftis, who investigated the rape case.

Knox County Attorney General Randy Nichols said the solution may be to outlaw door-to-door sales altogether.

"I would argue that we no longer need that type of service. People no longer deliver coal or ice to our doors. I think we could find a way to do it and exempt legitimate charitable organizations,'' he said.

"It could be like the 'no call' list for telemarketers. If we don't even want these people calling us on the phone, why do we want them knocking on our doors?''

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