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The old ‘bait and switch’ scam is alive and well

A team of “rogue” vacuum cleaner salespeople posing as authorized dealers of The Kirby Company are pulling a “bait and switch” scam on people on this side of Missouri, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

The scammers have primarily targeted senior citizens in what appears to be a scheme to get them to pay premium prices for old, often malfunctioning vacuums, warns the Better Business Bureau.

One consumer, a 74-year-old retiree from South St. Louis County, said he paid $700 for what he described as a secondhand “piece of junk” that was advertised as a new vacuum cleaner. The machine was in such bad condition and so difficult to operate, he said, that days later he replaced it with a new, store-bought machine.

The BBB has identified several consumers who claim that they were taken in by the scheme in recent weeks. In some of the cases, the consumers said the salespeople demonstrated a newer vacuum and then, they believe, substituted an old machine as they were closing the deal.

Michelle Corey, president and CEO of the BBB, called the scheme “reprehensible,” and a “black eye to honest salespeople struggling to earn a living in a tough economic climate. This should be exposed for what it is, an old-fashioned bait and switch.”

The Kirby Company, which is based in Cleveland, Ohio, wants to work with law enforcement officials to break up the scammers’ Missouri operation, spokesman Halle Haniewich said.

“Kirby does not and will not tolerate inappropriate sales tactics by authorized distributors,” she said. “(The company) will not sit back and watch unauthorized individuals unlawfully sell Kirby products.”                                

Haniewich told the BBB that until June 2009, one of the suspected scammers worked as a salesperson with Missouri-based vacuum cleaner sales company that heads its operations from the St. Louis area.

Haniewich said that in May, 2007 The Kirby Company contacted the Minnesota attorney general’s office about the suspected scammer and an associate selling used vacuums as new. By the end of its investigation, Kirby had provided the office with 26 complaints, 24 of them involving consumers age 67 or older. Local law enforcement officials were unable to pursue the case because the suspect and his associate had left the state.

The 74-year-old victim from South St. Louis County said a salesman came to his door in September offering a free carpet cleaning. Once the cleaning was complete, the consumer said, the salesman began trying to sell him a vacuum.

The price initially was $2,500, but the salesman and his partner quickly dropped the price to $700 and the homeowner agreed to the purchase.

The homeowner believes that while he was finalizing the deal in his kitchen with one of the men, the other was switching out the newer vacuum for an older, rusting model.

“It is definitely not the vacuum they showed me,” he said.  He also said the men took his 1-year-old vacuum without his permission. The check for the vacuum was cashed less than an hour after the men had left. The homeowner has been unable to contact the salesmen with the phone number they gave him.

In a separate case, another retiree from South St. Louis County said he and his wife were approached on Halloween Day by salespeople offering them a free carpet cleaning.  After a sales pitch, they said, they eventually agreed to pay $633 for what they believed was a new vacuum cleaner. They learned later that the Kirby Model G-4 they bought was built in 1995 and likely would retail for about $100.

Tim Landrum, owner of AAA Vacuum in South St. Louis County, who inspected the vacuum, said despite the written promise of a “lifetime warranty,” there was no warranty on the machine. He said the motor was not working properly. “I buy these machines all day long for $25 each,” he said. The retiree also said he believes the machine he ended up with was not the one he was shown by the salespeople.

The couple said their check was cashed after they called the office and asked for a refund. “It’s embarrassing that we were so dumb,” the husband said.

These consumers all reported the incidents to their local police agencies, but said they were told it was not a police matter.

Consumers with questions may contact Kirby’s Customer Relations’ Department at 800-494-8586.

Complaints may be made to the Missouri attorney general’s office consumer complaint hotline at 800-392-8222.

The BBB offers several tips for consumers dealing with door-to-door salespeople of vacuums and related items:

• Be wary of offers of free carpet cleanings. In most cases, the free cleanings are followed by pitches for carpet cleaning appliances or materials.

• Make sure you research a product carefully before buying it. If a salesperson makes a “take it or leave it” offer, insisting that you buy an item immediately, it may be best to ask the salesperson to leave.

• If possible, it is a good idea to call your local municipality to make sure that the salesperson has a permit to solicit in your area. If you feel threatened or pressured, call your local police department.

• Inspect any equipment or products carefully before agreeing to purchase it and make sure that you have a contract in writing, including any warranty information.  Also, ask for proof of identification of anyone soliciting at your place of residence and his or her company’s name. Write that information down, in the event you may need it later.

Don’t assume an item is new simply because it was taken from a box. In some cases, salespeople have been known to put used equipment in new boxes.

Check out any company with the BBB at or by calling 314-645-3300.

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