“These schemes are nothing short of theft of the labor and the wages of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people.”
– Robert Abrams, former Attorney General of New York
The startling discovery of the remains of a long-missing 18-year-old girl, Jennifer Hammond, in October 2009, served as a painful reminder that traveling door-to-door sales jobs are very dangerous. A Littleton, Colorado native, Hammond had last been seen in 2009 in a mobile home park in Milton, New York, where she had been dropped off to sell magazines door-to-door. She failed to show up at a designated pick-up spot two hours later. A hunter found her remains in a forest in Saratoga County, New York six years later.
Parents should not allow their children to take a traveling sales job. The dangers are too great. Without parental supervision, teens are at too great a risk of being victimized. Traveling sales crew workers are typically asked to go to the doors of strangers and sometimes enter their homes—a very dangerous thing for a young person to do.
Under pressure and scrutiny from advocacy groups and state law enforcement entities, it appears that the traveling sales sector today rarely hires individuals under 18. However, in recent years, there have been isolated reports of minors and more frequent reports of 18- to 21-year-olds being hired.
Numerous crime reports involving traveling sales crews suggests that the environment they present is not a safe one for teen workers or young adults.
In March 2011, two men in Spartanburg County, South Carolina called police and asked them to be taken to jail because incarceration seemed like it would be a better alternative than the traveling sales crew they were in. Vincent Mercento, 19, and Adam Bassi, 21, told police they needed to quit going door-to-door asking people to buy magazines. They said they were tired of being wet and selling magazines, and tired of the abuse from the company that employed them which seemed “cult-like.” Their lives were so bad they thought jail would be better.
How dangerous are traveling sales crews?
In August 2013, a 14-year-old teen selling chocolate door-to-door, in Hamilton, Ontario was sexually assaulted by his boss, according to police.
In March 2013, Zach Lossner, 17, a Tulsa, Oklahoma high school student, said two men who offered him a ride tried to recruit him into a traveling sales crew and would not let him go for several hours. Lossner eventually escaped the kidnapping attempt.
In February 2011, Columbia County, Georgia authorities arrested a traveling sales crew of 17 individuals for peddling without a license. Five of the arrestees had criminal records, including one individual on probation for child molestation, another with a conviction for statutory rape, and a third for not registering as a sex offender. Would you want your son or daughter to travel in such company?
All 17 individuals were crowded into one van. With vehicular accidents being one of the most common causes of death for young people, NCL urges teens not to accept any job like those on a traveling sales crew that involves driving long distances or for long periods of time.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warned consumers in May 2009 that deceptive sales practices are common in door-to-door sales—the group had received 1,100 complaints in the prior year. “Experience tells us that customers aren’t the only victims of [these scams],” said Michael Coil, President of the BBB of Northern Indiana, “the young salespeople are also potentially being taken advantage of by their employers and forced to work long hours, endure substandard living conditions and have their wages withheld from them.”
Unfortunately, young salespeople are also vulnerable to violence by crew leaders. The New York Times reported in October 2009, that “two young people working as itinerant magazine salesmen” in Lakewood, Washington were beaten with baseball bats and golf clubs after they told their bosses they wanted to quit. The victims, whose names and ages were not identified in the article, were hospitalized and their six assailants were arrested.
“The industry’s out of control as far as violence,” said Earline Williams, the founder of Parent Watch, one of the groups that follows the industry, told the Orlando Sentinel in a December 2009 article that reported the beating of Brian Emery, a sales crew member called “The Kid” by his colleagues. Emery’s age was not reported. New to traveling sales, Emery told deputies that his team members gave him $12 to buy beer in Osceola County, Florida, but became enraged when he bought the wrong brand. Two men were charged with beating Emery, one of whom broke a beer bottle across his face.
In May 2008, police in Spokane, Washington investigated a 16-year-old’s claim that she was held as a captive worker by a door-to-door sales company. She eventually escaped but only after the sales crew leaders beat up her boyfriend because he wasn’t selling enough magazines.
Many youth desperate for work are lured in with promises that they will earn good money, travel the country, and meet fun people selling door-to-door. One young man was told that the experience would be like MTV’s Road Rules.
The reality is often far different. Many salesmen work six days a week and 10 to 14 hours a day. Unscrupulous traveling sales companies charge young workers for expenses like rent and food, essentially requiring them to turn over all the money they ostensibly make from selling magazines or goods. When workers try to quit or leave the crew, they are told they cannot. Disreputable companies have been known to seize young workers’ money, phone cards, and IDs, and restrict their ability to call their parents. Drug use and underage drinking are not uncommon.
A New York Times report in 2007 found that crew members often make little money after expenses are deducted. On some crews, the lowest sellers are forced to fight each other or are punished by being forced to sleep on the floor.
Few of the magazine sales teams do background checks on their workers, according to Phil Ellenbecker, who runs an industry watchdog group based in Wisconsin that has tracked hundreds of felony crimes and over 80 deaths attributed to door-to-door vendors. ”It’s not uncommon to get recently released felons knocking on your door trying to sell you magazines,” said Ellenbecker.
One salesman who spent 10 years on traveling sales crews and eventually became a crew manager told the Indiana Student Daily newspaper, “I regret a lot of stuff I did…. I’d become this monster. Lying to kids, telling them how good the job was, and it wasn’t a good job at all.”
A tough economy has made it tougher to sell magazines and according to Earline Williams of Parent Watch, that has meant more violence on crews and more sales employees abandoned. “It’s gotten meaner,” she told NCL.
Among the possible dangers of working on traveling sales crews:
In addition to the suspected murder of Jennifer Hammond in 2003, other relatively recent murders:
- In November 2007, Tracie Anaya Jones, 19, who was a member of a traveling sales crew, was found dead from stab wounds. Originally from Oregon, Jones was last seen working in Little Rock Arkansas before her body was found 150 miles away in Memphis, Tennessee. Her killing remains unsolved and was featured on the America’s Most Wanted website.
- In Rapid City, South Dakota in April 2004, a 41-year-old man was charged with murdering a 21-year-old woman who came to his home to sell magazines.
Working in unknown neighborhoods poses risks, especially if you are carrying money from sales or have goods to sell.
- Although she was not part of a traveling sales crew, a 12-year-old selling candy for a school fundraiser in a Jacksonville, Florida neighborhood in March 2009 was robbed by three individuals who drove up to her in a car.
- In April 2003, a 16-year-old Texas youth selling candy was robbed and shot in the stomach by two teens.
In March 2011, an 18-year-old woman selling magazines in the Myrtle Grove, North Carolina area was approached by a man driving in a truck who assaulted her. Police arrested the man.
- In May 2009 in Bethesda, Maryland, a 19-year-old woman selling magazines was attacked and nearly raped by someone she encountered while selling magazines door-to-door.
- In Lawton, Oklahoma, a 19-year-old Nevada woman was selling magazines door-to-door in February 2009 when her potential customer invited her in. The man gave her something to drink and she awoke several hours later and realized she had been raped.
- A 19-year-old Ohio magazine salesperson was assaulted by three men who expressed an interest in buying magazines. The victim was waiting for a pickup by co-workers when she was approached, abducted, and sexually assaulted in April 2003.
Consumers are also at-risk of the dangers associated with traveling sales. Traveling sales crew members have committed a number of assaults and other crimes against non-sales crew members:
- In May 2011, Ruben Barradas, a door-to-door salesman was sentenced by a judge in Omaha, Nebraska to five to eight years in prison for convincing a woman that she and her 7- and 10-year-old daughters should submit to sexual examinations.
- A Texas man, Jesse Estep, who worked in a magazine sales crew, was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Litchfield, Connecticut in May 2010.
- In April 2010, police in Oak Ridge, Tennessee arrested a sex offender for possession of crack cocaine and other drugs.
- In February 2011, a Texas man from a traveling crew was arrested in Florida for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl.
The Portland, Oregon police department has online tips for consumers regarding how to avoid becoming a victim of unscrupulous traveling sales crews.
Traveling sales crews face greater risk of vehicle accidents and in many cases, crew leaders are driving without licenses or driving on suspended licenses. Vehicles are not always maintained properly and the use of 15-passenger vans in some cases presents safety concerns.
- In June 2011, a van carrying a traveling magazine sales crew rolled over in American Falls, Idaho. Three crew members aged 20 to 22 died. Seven others aged 18 to 24 were hospitalized.
- In November 2005, two teenagers were killed and seven were injured when their van flipped near Phoenix, Arizona. The vehicle crossed a median strip and ended up in the opposite lanes of a freeway. All nine occupants, who worked for a magazine subscription company, were thrown from the vehicle.
- A month earlier, 20-year-old, James Crawford, was ejected from a van and killed in Georgia. Eighteen young adults were crammed into the 15-passenger van. The driver fell asleep and was allegedly driving under the influence of marijuana. The occupants were heading north from Florida to sell magazine subscriptions.
- Two young salespersons, age 18 and 19, were ejected from a vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene after a vehicle accident in which 15 salespersons were crammed into a 10-year-old SUV that rolled over on a highway in New Mexico in September 2002.
- In 1999, seven individuals traveling as a sales crew were killed in an accident in Janesville, Wisconsin. Five other passengers were injured, including one girl who was paralyzed. The driver of the van, who was trying to elude a police chase, did not have a valid driver’s license and attempted to switch places with another driver when the accident occurred. The fatality victims included Malinda Turvey, 18, who has inspired ground-breaking legislation—Malinda’s Act—which passed in Wisconsin in April 2009 to regulate traveling sales crews
One young man who was abandoned by his traveling crew told NCL about some of the driving dangers, which included unsafe vans and unsafe drivers: “You’ve got drivers that have licenses but they’re suspended. They shouldn’t be driving [and] they let young adults drive under the influence.”
Alcohol and drugs
Here is an excerpt from “Shauna’s Story,” a memoir of life on the road with a traveling sales crew, which appears at www.Travelingsalescrews.info, a watchdog site for the industry):
“[We were] a whole group of 18 and 19 year olds, and every night we drank more alcohol, and smoked more weed than the wildest college kids. It was the way we relaxed after some of the days we went through. We were out there rain, sleet, or snow all day, just like little soldiers. From the scorching summer days in Alabama to the near freezing temperatures of New York winters. We had only one mission: bring back the money and that we did. And for all that we went through, dealing with [the crew leaders] screaming at us when we didn’t have many sales, to refusing to take us to eat if we didn’t have any sales. To people slamming doors in our faces all day. We felt like we deserved to escape for a little while. And since we weren’t allowed to have our own vehicles on the road, we were stuck at the hotel. So every night after work, we would walk to the nearest store, find the closest dope man, and escape for a couple hours.”
Young salesmen have been stranded if they try to quit or do not sell enough.
Parent Watch’s founder Williams told the Orlando Sentinel in 2009 that she handles two to six phone calls a day from frightened, stranded workers seeking bus fare home.
In the summer of 2009, the National Consumers League received a call from one stranded salesman, Ricky, who had been left on the side of the road a thousand miles from home with no money to pay for transportation.
An April 2015 piece titled “Trapped into Selling Magazines Door-to-Door” in The Atlantic quotes a salesperson, Stephanie Dobbs: “I’ve been working on crews for three years, and I’ve been abandoned 11 times.”
Crews often work in bad weather, walking miles in blazing heat or in cold weather. They often wait hours in strange neighborhoods for their crew leaders or drivers to take them back to the hotels they are staying in.
Crews often operate without proper licenses and permits and young sales people are subject to arrest.
Young workers, far from home, are at special risk of exploitation from older crew leaders and crew members—many of whom have criminal records.
Parent Watch estimates that as many as 30,000 to 40,000 individuals are involved in traveling sales crews, selling magazines, candy, household cleaners, and other items door-to-door each year. It’s difficult to estimate the number of minors involved in this industry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most recruits are over 18 because of the legal risks of transporting minors. However, NCL worries that there are still occasional minors lured into the business. In April 2011 in Manhattan, Kansas a 17-year-old was one of five magazine crew members arrested for peddling without a license. In August 2010, police arrested eight individuals for illegal sales in Holden, Massachusetts. Two of the individuals were 17.
- In Gainesville, Florida in November 2009, police responded to a disturbance involving a 17-year-old girl who had been fired from a crew for low sales. The girl said she had nowhere to go and was not allowed to collect her belongings until police helped her. Police ran background checks on the crew of 50 sales people she was traveling with and found many with extensive criminal histories.
While this report focuses on protecting teenagers, traveling sales crews present significant dangers for young adults—large numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds who make up most crews—as well.
- A news report from Mankato, Minnesota concerned an 18-year-old man with developmental delays who was lured into following a sales crew. His panicked family was able to retrieve him about a week later. Another 18-year-old who suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression was lured from his home in Gaston County, North Carolina in April 2011.
The website Parentwatch.org contains an account by an 18-year-old traveling sales crew member who said she was drugged, raped, and impregnated by a fellow crew member. She also said she regularly saw fellow crew members get beaten to the point that they needed hospitalization.
The number of crimes in which 18- to 21-year-olds in traveling sales crews are victims or perpetrators is staggering and can be tracked here.
Shauna, the young woman who wrote about her experiences in a crew, reflected:
“It’s crazy the things people will put up with to feel like they belong, to feel loved, and to be accepted….Now that I have been off the road …it’s given me the opportunity to sit back and reflect on just how blessed I was to be involved in something so dangerous for so long, and make it out safely. Sometimes I still have nightmares of some of the things that I went through, and some of the things I witnessed.”
What can be done to help clean up this industry?
States and localities should consider model laws like the one passed in Wisconsin in 2009. It requires sales workers who travel in pairs of two or more to be employees rather than independent contractors and subjects them to labor laws. Companies that employ crews would have to register with the state and their operators would have to pass criminal background checks. The law requires companies to tell recruits in writing where they will work and how much they will be paid. It also requires them to carry insurance and mandates employers to pay a $10,000 bond with the state.
Local police can ensure that crews in their areas are properly licensed and can talk to young salespeople to ensure that they are not being physically abused or held against their will.
In July 2015, the anti-trafficking group Polaris Project released a research report on the subject of traveling sales crews.
“Knocking at Your Door: Labor Trafficking on Traveling Sales Crews” provides an in-depth analysis of the factors that allow this crime to persist and encourages greater understanding of the extensive abuses within the industry. The report makes several recommendations, including:
- Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in order to cover door-to-door sales,
- The Federal Government should investigate abuses of the J-1 visa program,
- Law enforcement should pursue bad actors at the top of the sales network instead of focusing on crew members violating local anti-solicitation laws,
- Service organizations should recognize crew members as victims of labor trafficking so they can receive support,
- The publishing industry should ensure transparent business supply chains in their magazine sales, and
- Consumers should use caution when buying magazines or other items from sales crews.
Additional recommendations can be found in the report.