Home-Security Services: Under Surveillance

More than 10,000 companies in the United States sell home-security-system services. A lack of regulation can lead to unlicensed workers installing systems and inexperienced or unethical salespeople making promises that can’t be kept.

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When Nicki Ketvertis and her husband, Kevin, arrived home from grocery shopping years ago, they found unexpected visitors at their doorstep in Joliet, Ill. Four police cars surrounded their home and a SWAT team kicked in their front door. Their home-security-system-service provider had dispatched a false alarm.

A month later, the Ketvertises received a $225 bill from Joliet for the false alarm. They say it took about a year before their home-security-system service provider paid the bill after Joliet intervened for the couple. 

This incident occurred about 10 years ago, and they since switched home-security-system service providers, but the Ketvertis family suffered a small—and fairly common—hiccup when compared with other consumers.  

• In 2011, a home-security-system service salesperson in Florida was charged with raping a woman after he forced his way into her home after trying to sell her a home-security system.

• In 2012, a man in Canada who purchased a surveillance system for his home was surprised to log into his account to view images of total strangers inside of their homes. His home-security-system service provider sent the wrong video clips to his online account. 

Although these extreme cases are rare, they show the importance of scrutinizing a home-security-system service provider. As many as 13,000 home-security-service companies operate within the United States, according to Laura Stepanek, who is the editor of SDM magazine, which covers the home-security industry.  Consumers Digest looked at the good, the bad and the ugly of these companies to help you to feel more secure when you hire one. 

FEELING SECURE. You don’t have to hire a home-security service to add home-security products to your home, of course. However, a home-security service will monitor your home while you’re away. A “monitoring” contract typically means that you’ll enter a 3- to 5-year agreement at an average cost of $35–$49 per month.

The equipment that you purchase from a home-security-system service provider typically includes contacts, which are mounted to doors or windows to detect when they open, motion detectors, a control panel and a keypad. (Some home-security-system service providers supply the equipment at a discount or free when you sign a monitoring contract.) Should you sign a contract and if a break-in is detected, the home-security-system service provider will call you. A dispatcher will ask you to provide a password and verify that everything is OK—that it’s a false alarm. If you don’t answer the phone or if someone answers the phone but doesn’t provide the correct password, the home-security-system service provider will call the police.

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Stan Martin, who is the executive director of Security Industry Alarm Coalition, which is a trade group for the home-security-services industry, says your home-security-system service provider should contact you within 1 minute after it receives an alarm from your system. The only way that the home-security-system service provider can determine whether it’s a false alarm is by you answering your phone and providing the correct information when prompted. Martin estimates that about 80 percent of all false alarms are caused by user error. This could include, for example, a door not being closed within the appropriate amount of time, forgotten security codes or improper training about the use of the home-security system.

Depending on where you live, your local government might fine you for false alarms. For example, if you live in Los Angeles, the city will charge you $151 for a false alarm and escalate that fee by $50 for each subsequent false alarm. In Roswell, Ga., residents aren’t charged for a first or second false alarm within a year. Subsequent false alarms within the year, however, will result in a $50 fee for each false alarm.

BUYER BEWARE. Chicago resident Veronika Kotlajic knows all about the cost of false alarms. In the past year, Kotlajic had to pay $400 for a third and fourth false alarm that brought the police to her home. She says the problem is her home-security system.

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