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Maria Angulo opened the door to her home and found a couple who said in her native Spanish that they were from the school district. They showed her brochures and papers for a computer system with tons of software -- not found in stores -- that would help boost her ten-year-old daughter's grades.
They said this computer was necessary because it could teach Jesse twice what she would learn in school. Not only would the high-tech system help Angulo's daughter get into college, but she could use it once she was there. "They told me many things," Angulo says. "Very pretty things."
The man and the woman said it was a really good deal. Angulo trusted them; they seemed very nice, so she signed a contract. Christmas was approaching, and this Huntsville family was planning a trip to Mexico, so they didn't have enough money to buy the computer. Maria Angulo is a baby-sitter, and her husband, Sam, is a laborer.
Don't worry, the salespeople assured them. They only needed Maria's credit card information to charge a deposit. The computer arrived before the holidays. But a few days later, it broke. Maria couldn't get it to turn on. When a technician came to her house, he couldn't fix it either. He said he'd bring her a new one.
"I never saw him again," Maria said in a letter to Houston's Better Business Bureau. When her credit card statement arrived, she discovered that the salespeople had charged the entire $2,500 to her.
The Angulos, low-income Hispanics and non-English speakers who are not well versed in written Spanish, are the typical targets in a new scheme sweeping through the Houston region. Smooth-talking salespeople, some of them allegedly implying they are from the local school district, appeal to parental desires for good education for their offspring. Days later, the families are left with overpriced computers that may not even work, big bills and the brush-off when it comes to refunds or repairs.
For help, Maria Angulo turned to Tricia Guyton, who employs her as a baby-sitter. "I found it odd that new equipment would break down within a week of purchasing it," Guyton says. She doesn't even think it was a new computer; it looked old to her. Guyton called the company, Home Learning Center, to say she would be returning the machine for a refund.
A secretary told Guyton they had a three-day deadline on returns, which disqualified Angulo because the repairman had been delayed in getting to her house to check the computer.
"Normally people back their products up," Guyton says. "They give you at least 90 days." Eventually the secretary put her through to the boss. "He was very rude," Guyton says. "I said, 'Do I need to get an attorney to be able to talk to you?' He said, 'You do whatever you need to do.' "
While the traditional caveat emptor warnings always apply, some educators and consumer activists are particularly troubled by this latest trend, because marketers may act like they're partaking in bona fide school business.
In 1999 Aldine ISD Superintendent Sonny Donaldson wrote the Better Business Bureau that parents had complained that representatives of Home School Interactive Connections said they were working with the district to sell computers to help educate kids.
According to the BBB, Home School Interactive Connections and Home Learning Center are the same operation. HSIC's phone number has a recording saying HLC's number should be called for warranty or technical complaints. The voice mailbox was full.
The companies denied to the BBB that their sales crew ever misrepresented that they were from a school district. They did not return calls from the Houston Press.
Critics complain that companies are targeting people who don't realize that public school systems don't solicit parents to buy educational wares from private companies. "That's just not what we do," says Ben Wilson, assistant AISD superintendent for community and governmental relations. "Anyone calling their homes to sell products cannot represent the school district."
But businesses can obtain the children's names and grades from the schools, because that's public information. It can confuse the parents into thinking the salespeople are with the district.
"We were getting calls from parents about being hit on by salesmen trying to sell computers," Donaldson says. "These people were first shocked; they want to help their children, they want to give them the opportunity to learn, they want to take every advantage."
Marketers who pass themselves off as aligned with public school systems give "parents the comfortable feeling to do business with unscrupulous people," Donaldson says. "It's just very unprofessional. It's unethical."
For instance, a salesman showed up at Fernando Garza's house last year and knew the names of Garza's sons, their grade levels and the subjects they were doing poorly in. Garza remembers the man saying he was from Aldine ISD before Garza signed the contract.
He tried to return the computer the next day but was unable to reach anything but a recording. The company backdated his receipt, says Garza's attorney, Ruben Valdes. Garza returned the computer anyway but never saw his cash. His attorney has written letters that haven't gotten responses, and he intends to sue.