Hot on heels of NYT article, SmartMoney takes a shot at resi security, too

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05/05/2010
boxing My recent blog post on the April 30 NYT article that I felt could prompt end users to question the value of their security along with the attendant poll we put out incited some angry emails to SSN. A primary reason for the backlash, I think, is that I did not, in that post, make clear that the article was talking about residential security and not the whole security industry. I'll be clearer here: Hot on the heels of the New York Times article, SmartMoney has posted a story called "10 Things Home-Security Firms Won't Tell You." It's subtitled "Updated and adapted from the book '1,001 Things They Won't Tell You: An Insider's Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely,' by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of SmartMoney." Now, I'm no expert, but that sounds an awful lot like a reputable, consumer-oriented news source casting resi security in the light of deceiver in order to create sensationalism (and sell books). Keep in mind, the way this top 10 list is set up, the reader is thinking, as he or she reads, "Okay, these are the TRUTHS the security company KNOWS and isn't going to tell me..."
1. “A little home security goes a long way.” It’s official: We live in a society increasingly obsessed with the technology of safety ... Yet crime in general, and burglaries in particular, have been steadily decreasing. As comforting as it may be to have an elaborate alarm system — the average home-security package costs about $1,400 for installation and equipment, and about $23 a month to monitor—the reality is that you can deter most break-ins much more cheaply. There are lots of proactive—and inexpensive—ways you can protect your home from a break-in, says Frank Santamorena, founder of Security Experts, a security services company in New York. Lighting works wonders. Merely keeping the boundaries of your house ('perimeters' in security lingo) well lit— perhaps with motion-sensor lights, which cost less than $100—will discourage most burglars. But since the majority of home break-ins occur during the day, when people are away at work, experts suggest a few additional precautions. Keep hedges trimmed low to minimize hiding space around the house, and make sure there’s a good, strong lock installed on every door. And many homeowners make the mistake of putting their name on their mailbox. A burglar can get your phone number and find out if you’re not home immediately, “without even having to knock on the door,” says Santamorena.
Right off the bat, SmartMoney tells its readers you resi guys are going to lie to them about what they need to be safe. Again, readers are advised to have lots of light and trim hedges--similar to the NYT article reader who said "just get a dog"--as a way to keep their property safe cheaply. In other words, the reader is being told to expect you're going to try and sell them more security than they need. Also, I like that the story mentions people today are increasingly obsessed with technology-driven security solutions, DESPITE the fact that crime and burglaries have been on the decline... Is there maybe a correlation between the two? I mean, a decrease in crime and burglaries couldn't possibly BE a side effect of the public's increased desire for and investment in security, could it?
2. “The cops can’t hear your alarm.” Think your alarm will ring right in your local police station? Forget about it. The majority of today’s home security alarms ring in a so-called central station, where monitors will phone your house, ask for a code word, and notify the police if you don’t respond. That central station can be anything from a boiler room downtown to a concrete bunker in another state, and it may or may not be manned by your security company, but rather a third-party subcontractor. Not thrilled with the idea of having your alarm ringing 1,000 miles away at a company you’ve never heard of? You should be. For one thing, a feel for local conditions might come in handy when your life is at stake. “You’re better off being with a local alarm company with a central station than you are with a national company,” says Santamorena. And more than that, he says, you want a “UL-listed” system.
No. 2's kind of a mixed bag... It's true that almost no municipalities have private alarms ring right in at police headquarters (some do). However, the point goes on to allude that there may be willful subterfuge in the third-party monitoring model. I'll ignore the fact that when SmartMoney asks, "Not thrilled with the idea of having your alarm ringing 1,000 miles away at a company you’ve never heard of?" and then says, "You should be," they're actually telling their readers they should be thrilled with the long-distance, third-party monitoring scenario they're trying to vilify, rather than the opposite, which is what I think they meant. It's easy to get confused... SmartMoney advises its readers--your potential customers--to insist on the dealer/integrator having his/her own UL-listed central station. It does talk about UL-listing, which I'm sure most security companies are behind (some aren't), but how realistic is it for every integrator to have his or her own UL-listed central?
3. “This system is more trouble than it’s worth.” Sales of systems might be up, but once they’re installed, not all folks actually use them. It could be that they’re worried about false alarms or that they only set the alarm when they’re away for an extended period. 'Any system that you have installed, it’s important you get the proper training on how to use it. And you want to use it every day,' says Michael Miller, president of the Electronic Security Association (ESA), an industry group.
Again, remember that the way the list is set up ("...the things they know and won't tell you...") tells the end user that you, the resi security installer, believe that the system you're selling them is more trouble than it's worth. Again, you're being cast as a liar. It may BE true that many people don't use their security systems once they're installed, but that says something about the individual end user, not the resi security company that installed the system. SmartMoney says "not all" owners of security systems use the system... What is that? Less than 100%? So it's greater than 0% but possibly not 100%. That doesn't mean anything. Did they actually talk to anyone? Do they have a real number? Thankfully, they did talk to Mike Miller over at ESA who gets it right on: If you own a system, use it. It can't do anything to protect you if you don't turn it on.
4. “The local police hate us.” If you have an alarm system installed in your home, one thing is almost certain: You will trigger false alarms. This is, of course, a nuisance in itself. But the real problem is that police departments know it. Nationwide, the majority of alarm calls are false, rendering alarms’ overall reliability quite thin. In some locales, the police have responded by fining homeowners for repeat false alarms...
Hate's a pretty strong word. SmartMoney's telling its readers you know you're a pariah and are keeping that dark secret from them. And the police department representatives with whom I've so far spoken over my tenure here, reporting on false alarm ordinances and false alarm reduction efforts nationwide have not been hateful. By and large, they've wanted to enter into a cooperative relationship with the industry to reduce false alarms and make security systems more effective, increase the inherent value. No. 5 (“We’ll try to sell you expensive gadgets you don’t really need.”) is really a repeat of No. 1 (“A little home security goes a long way.”), and so I won't address it except to say, it's okay SmartMoney if you couldn't come up with 10... you could have done a Top 9 list, even though that's not the norm. No. 6, (“Our rent-a-cops are very low-rent.”) I'm also not going to touch since it's about security officers... Suffice it to say that the alleged lie you're going to tell the reader is that your "rent-a-cops" are top-notch when they're really under-qualified. Also, my colleague Leischen Stelter, managing editor of Security Director News, assures me that the term "rent-a-cop" IS, in fact, derogatory (was there intention here?). Come on now, SmartMoney... Name-calling?
7. “Getting past our alarms is tough—unless you have a pair of scissors.” Last year, nearly a dozen homes in Lewisville, outside Dallas, were burglarized. In an attempt to disable the alarm systems, the criminals cut power and telephone lines before forcing their way inside the homes, according to a local news report... The standard home alarm is transmitted over a telephone line, and getting around it requires little more than the ability to figure out where the line is and the skill to handle a good pair of wire cutters. Most alarm companies now offer some sort of backup protection, which typically consists of a radio or cellular device that notifies the central station your line has been cut. But these backup systems can cost a lot more—around several hundred dollars extra in addition to monthly charges.
Well, I addressed this issue a while ago... The POTS sunset is coming, and the time is now to talk to customers about the alternatives... if you can convince them that, despite the insistence of SmartMoney, you're not a liar.
“We may use unethical sales tactics.” These days, homeowners need to beware of salespeople who come knocking. The Better Business Bureau received nearly 3,000 complaints about burglar-alarm companies in 2009, up from 2,087 in 2008. Many complainants allege that the salesperson used high-pressure tactics and made claims that were not included in the final contract, according to the BBB. Last month, the Electronic Security Association announced a new code of ethics for door-to-door sales in an effort to cut down on deceptive pitches. “Rogue salespeople,” as the ESA called them in a statement, have been making headlines with lawsuits filed by major security-alarm companies against door-to-door salespeople for misleading customers...
Yeah, unethical sales tactics hurt the entire industry, that's for sure. No. 8 does, at least, mention the attempts of the industry to tackle the problem. It mentions ESA's Code of Ethics, which is good, and SmartMoney does have the good grace to use the word "may" so as to allude to the possibility that maybe all security companies aren't unethical. No. 9 (“You’re stuck with us.”) I'm not going to get too far into since it deals with multi-year contracts that auto-renew, and any person signing his name on a dotted line should be held responsible for knowing what they just signed--it's that simple. Does smart money think people have never heard of multi-year auto renewing contracts? What about cell phones? Ken Kirschenbaum discusses contract issues of relevance to the security industry at length in his newsletter. Sign up for it and keep informed. No. 10 (“If you have a pet, we might be less effective.”) seems kind of silly, too. I mean, are there really any resi installers out there who wouldn't say that a cat or dog might confuse the security system's motion sensors? And can't the sensitivity, the detection threshold, on those things be adjusted or something to allow for pets? I don't know... I'm not an installer. I guess with number 10, if you, as an installer, aren't willing to go back to a install site having false alarm problems due to a pet and do some tweaking, then maybe you should feel pretty badly about yourself... My point in this whole blog post is that the industry's being smacked around here. I think both the NYT article (albeit to a lesser degree than SmartMoney's piece) and SmartMoney's Top 9 list cast the industry in a hurtful and false light. SSN has been reaching out, asking you guys if there's something that can or should be done to offer end users a counterpoint. Let us know what you think, either by commenting on this blog, emailing me, or my editor Sam, or voting in our current poll.

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