Slice of Life

Attention, sheisty solicitors: Next time, I call the police

ktanner@thetribunenews.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Kathe Tanner

We like to think of Cambria as being a blend of Mayberry, the Emerald City and Greenwich Village. Homey, friendly and magical, but also sophisticated and quirky.

But we’re not immune to scams and hucksters here. Far from it. Caveat emptor. Moreover, be wary even if you’re not buying anything.

When our doorbell rang Aug. 30, I cautiously opened the front door, just a little. This may be Cambria, but I wasn’t expecting guests or a delivery.

A slender young man with a clipboard and a strong Irish accent began speaking rapidly, saying he’d been talking to my neighbors about children in the area and he hoped I could help him.

Something didn’t feel right. I asked why he wanted to know. The fast talker said he was a Cal Poly student, part of a group telling children about books or showing them books or selling them. Or maybe it was games. He really wasn’t clear about what he was doing.

He wanted to come in the house. Not a chance, chum.

I refused, saying there were no youngsters here or in our neighborhood (not true, but I wasn’t going to tell him where they live).

He was insistent. Finally, I just shut the door and locked it.

I considered calling the Sheriff’s Office. However, as far as I could tell, the young man hadn’t broken any laws (yet). Maybe his was a legit operation, I rationalized, rather like the college guys who, regularly for several summers, canvassed our neighborhood looking for houses to paint.

Even so, the encounter made me twitchy.

A few days later, Fire Engineer Emily Torlano confirmed my uneasiness. Apparently, the same young Irishman came to her door that same day, saying he was doing research about children. He asked questions about Emily’s kids BY NAME, then tried repeatedly to get inside so he “could play with them.” Just as repeatedly, she refused. She locked her door, too.

Later, she discovered others in the community had been similarly approached by assorted people with foreign accents. At least four Cambrians also reported unfamiliar vehicles going slowly, repeatedly, up and down their quiet residential streets, apparently also logging information into electronic devices.

And there had been other odd, worrisome happenings. For instance, a friend found a stranger in her garage going through the family’s laundry (???).

Emily called the Sheriff’s Office, and then went online. She learned that similar-sounding incidents had apparently happened on the East Coast in June, and all over the nation since then. Someone in Bakersfield said the same “solicitors” were at her door on Sept. 7, and a British man had been arrested in Solvang recently for trying to get into someone's house to “see the children.”

My colleagues and I also went online. At www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/booksellers.asp, we found reports that seem to debunk nationwide allegations of illegal activity (such as sex trafficking and abductions) by such salespeople.

Snopes, a well-respected website that researches the veracity of claims about scams among other things, said some similar-sounding complaints refer to solicitors from a firm called Southwestern Advantage, which really does sell educational products. Snopes said those salespeople, college students who often have foreign accents, are trained to be aggressive and pushy, traits which can be annoying as the devil and even make their sales pitches suspect.

Do we know if our “solicitors” were from Southwestern or were renegades with less-than-legal intentions? No, because we didn’t immediately alert the Sheriff’s Office, which is trained to find out such information. Bad us.

I emailed Sgt. Stuart MacDonald of the Sheriff’s Coast Station, who knew of the Solvang arrest, but replied that the department can’t speculate “about the intentions of the people who were going door-to-door (in Cambria) inquiring about neighbors and children, because we had no opportunity to contact them and investigate their stated purpose.”

He reminded me that “door-to-door solicitation in San Luis Obispo County requires a business license issued by the county, regardless of what the person is selling. If anyone comes to a person's home to solicit a sale” and can’t produce that license, the homeowner or resident should immediately call the Sheriff's Office at 781-4550, a nonemergency line.

Yes, I should have asked for the license.

MacDonald said an immediate call to the Sheriff’s Office provides deputies with their “best opportunity to contact these people and determine if they are legitimate or if they might be engaged in criminal activity.”

Yes, I should have called. I’m a reporter. I know better.

He said it helps if callers can immediately provide “a description of the person who is soliciting and a last known direction of travel,” if the reporting party can determine that safely. A deputy will be dispatched to find the solicitors to confirm that “they are properly licensed and are, in fact, engaged in the activity that they represent they are engaged in.”

MacDonald emphasized that we should never, ever allow an uninvited stranger into our homes, or disclose information about our family or neighbors.

If a stranger at the door refuses to leave after being told to leave, close and lock the door. Then call your local police.

Yes, we live in Paradise. Let’s keep it safe. Make the call. Next time, I will do that. I promise.

Tribune and Cambrian reporter Kathe Tanner's "Slice of Life" column is published biweekly in The Cambrian. Follow her on Twitter at @CambriaReporter.

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