Some Lodi-area residents are wary of answering their doors in the middle of the day, claiming a nice-looking, young, blonde woman is not only selling textbooks, but inquiring which homes in the neighborhood have children living there.
She reportedly speaks with a Russian accent, rides a bicycle, carries a clipboard and has a pitch to sell textbooks.
“It kind of freaked me out after it was over,” mother Kelly Collins of Woodbridge said of her experience last week. “Talk about this is swarming around Lodi.”
During a visit to her home, a college-age woman wearing a backpack and carrying a clipboard stood behind a man who did all the talking with a strong accent, she said. He told her they were foreign-exchange students visiting homes to teach parents strategies for their students.
He also started naming her neighbors and the names of their children.
“They did not look intimidating at all. They were super friendly,” Collins said, though she added that she did not open the door all the way during their brief conversation.
“I didn’t think much about it until I saw all the buzz on Facebook and read an online article,” she said. “Then I started asking my neighbors about it.”
She was part of a lengthy discussion on Facebook among Lodi and Woodbridge residents who were visited by people matching the same description.
Apparently, the scenario is playing out in cities across the United States — but Lodi police and the website Snopes.com say there’s nothing to be alarmed about. The salespeople here and elsewhere are likely employed by Tennessee-based Southwestern Advantage, a company that sells books door to door.
Lodi Police Lt. David Griffin said residents shouldn’t open their doors for anyone they don’t know. Instead, use a security chain to open the door a crack and talk through the opening to see what the person wants. If they continue to push when you’ve said you’re not interested, call the police.
Anyone who goes door-to-door within Lodi city limits is required to have a license; the police department’s records division handles the peddlers’ licenses, while code enforcement handles applications involving sales of food products, according to city spokesman Jeff Hood.
Southwestern Advantage obtained a peddlers’ license in July, Hood said, and it must be presented to anyone who asks to see it.
To sell an item on the streets of an incorporated area, one must also obtain a peddlers’ license through the tax collector’s office. It is unclear whether Southwestern Advantage has done so in order to sell in Woodbridge.
In an email message Tuesday morning, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Les Garcia said the Sheriff’s Office’s crime analysis unit has not received any calls about the door-to-door salespeople.
There are reports nationwide that these groups are going to homes that show evidence of children living in them. Salespeople look for playground equipment, bicycles, skates, balls and anything that indicates children’s presence, according to one website.
Just like in neighborhoods in both Woodbridge and Lodi, they reportedly knock on the door and hold up expensive children’s books and start asking what could seem like suspicious questions.
Snopes.com, a tool for debunking stories that circulate online, defended the practice, quoting a Southwestern spokesman who said asking about other children in the neighborhood is an important part of their sales strategy, as they don’t want to miss potential clients.
A representative of the company could not be reached Monday.
Griffin has not heard of any complaints from residents in Lodi. He said his house was visited by the same saleswoman at least three times.
“I didn’t think she was pushy, just consistent,” he said. “She did what any good salesperson would do, and that is to make an offer so good you can’t say no.”
If the door-to-door salespeople in local neighborhoods are from Southwestern Advantage, you can confirm they are dealers at www.southwesternadvantage.com.
Collins, who went online to try to figure out who might have been canvassing her neighborhood, wasn’t able to get a dealer number.
“They didn’t get that far with me, because as soon as they told me what they were doing, I turned them down. But that’s who it has to be after I made all the connections. Everything they said mimicked what the (online) article said,” she said. “They’re brought over here thinking that in the United States we buy things from door-to-door salespeople, which is obviously not the case.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.