How do you feel about a company that relies on prying information about your children from your neighbors without your consent?
A college-aged woman came to our door and said she was visiting all the homes of the children in our school district to provide resources for our kids to use for homework completion. I invited her in. It was also hot outside, and she had made the clear impression that she was employed by our school district. She showed me her list of names, and told me she had to visit with each family in her assigned section of the district.
The charade that she was associated with the school district continued, even as I asked direct questions about it. She would not say “No, I am not from your school district or employed by your school district.” until I asked her directly “Were you sent by our school district and are you employed by them?” Instead she said she was interning for “them” (deliberately vague pronoun meaning her company, rather than the school system), and that she was brought in from Colorado while interns from our area of the state were sent there as part of the program. She said it was for college credits.
She asked personal questions about my wife, myself, our home, our kids, and details about our kids’ education. She did all this under the (technically unstated) guise of being an official with the local school district. We’d been duped into conversational information sharing with someone misrepresenting herself.
edited to add: When the saleswoman gained affirmation that our daughter was to attend the school she was listed under, the salesperson immediately made it appear that she had a personal relationship with the principal of that school. She named her, asked if we’d met her – then referred to her by her first name and said what a wonderful person she was and didn’t we find that to be so. Again the inference that she had been sent by this principal in an official capacity, representing our school.
She eased into what became a more and more obvious sales pitch. She was selling reference books for families “who prioritize education”. I asked how she got our name and address and she evaded a couple of times before saying that she inquires about neighbors from other homes she visited. She gave the names of several of our neighbors, and indicated that the one next door told them we had small children and that we had a particularly strong interest in their education.
The new neighbors next door do not even know our first names. They may know we have kids, because they see us walking with them, but they can’t even see our home from where they live and they certainly don’t know anything about our educational priorities. They moved in less than 6 months ago and they keep to themselves, we thought they were flipping the house (because of all the work they immediately did to it), so we didn’t greet them when they first moved in. In short – she was lying.
I told her that we don’t know those neighbors. She evaded some more then said, “They know you have kids.”
She then told us, “I’m going to show the books to you, then you tell me yes or no as to whether you want them or not, okay?”. She seemed to be asking us to agree ahead of time not to ask any questions about them not answered by her brief presentation.
She showed us the books. They apparently have selections for all stages in primary education. The sample she showed to us was a vocabulary dictionary for children preparing for grade school. She turned to the entry “cow” as an example, while she explained that it had been developed in part by someone associated with Sesame Street programming. Turns out that she chose a bad entry to start with.
The definition for “cow” was (this is from memory): a grass-eating animal that makes milk in a way we do not understand.
I said, “That’s really strange wording. Milk production is well understood. That is really weird. It sounds like a deliberately unscientific way to present information to a child.”
She had no answer to this, and closed the book. She seemed to know at this point that we were not going to be spending money on her products. She went through all that work to get into our home under false pretenses, then she showed us an example from her ‘educational materials’ that was the equivalent of “nobody knows where electricity comes from.”
Here is the result of two minutes research online – google: how do cows make milk:
I was curious to see more, but she knew it would be a waste of time, and Mom was eager to usher her out to stop the madness and awkwardness of the whole encounter. I wish like crazy that I had gotten more of a look at these so-called reference books.
Turns out that Southwestern books are widely described as a scam. Salespeople can earn tuition money by working hard, far from home, in a dishonest and deceptive manner. The company was founded selling bibles door to door using these techniques, and its founder is a Baptist minister. Some student unions have banned Southwestern due to ‘improper business actions’ and there is controversy over the terms agreed to by their work force.
I care less about the students duped into pursuing a scam as their summer job, and more about the manner in which they pry private information from neighbors under false pretenses.
Learn about these guys. Tell your friends about them. If one is talking to you – whatever you do, don’t let them mine you for private information about your family, or your friends and neighbors.
My first impression was that I had somebody advertising a religion on my door-step (she wore a large cross on her necklace), she said otherwise and showed some papers to assure me that I was next in line on her list of families in our school district. She said she was here to help us prepare for the upcoming school year, and strongly implied that it was under an official capacity not only endorsed by, but a part of our local school district. Turns out she was selling a product, in a more insidious way than I’d yet encountered – representing that they are the standard in educational reference materials, and implying that they are endorsed by our school district.
Some links for more information about Southwestern:
(From Southwestern’s own website –emphasizes how they rationalize what they do by saying it is their right to sell you things in a deceptive but technically legal way. The comments are worth reading, as they indicate that the salespeople are ultimately the ones being scammed)
I’m including this link to be inclusive… it is a question “Are Southwestern books a scam?” on a homeschooling site. With positive answers followed by “blessings” as a departing platitude, I think it is clear that some homeschooling families are happy with them – particularly (?) religious ones. I cannot speak to the quality as well as I’d like to. The book I saw called milk a mystery beyond comprehension. If my kid’s first grade teacher called milk a mystery beyond human comprehension, I’d have to meet with that teacher and probably their supervisor. There are books in the Southwestern line which claim to explain why leaves change color – I can’t tell you what answers they give. I am only guessing when I assume they say that it is inexplicable (extrapolating from my abbreviated experience with the product line).
I find this article to be of interest, too – again, from the Southwestern site:
from the article:
“the headline read, “Residents Warned of Book Scam”. The article was actually the school district letting the community know the person selling educational books in the area was not endorsed by the district. With the misleading headline, the article actually caused a problem for the legitimate college student running her business selling Southwestern Company books.”
The next day, under pressure from Southwestern, the paper ran what amounted to a retraction, calling the sales legitimate.
Do you follow what happened there? The Southwestern sales scripts push fast and hard to give the impression that the salesperson is working for the school district, without ever actually saying it. The district wanted to warn that this was going on – but that fact doesn’t technically make the book sales a scam – it makes the sales technique technically legal while relying on misconception to get the salesperson in the door. The (apparently effective) hope is that you will forgive the misunderstanding, attribute it to yourself rather than what the salesperson said (factually misleading since the salesperson certainly guides you to fill in the blanks incorrectly), and then pay 400 bucks for a dozen books that seem likely to be startlingly substandard educational materials, while pushing an agenda in keeping with the founder’s motives and the (republican) politicians the company funds.
Bottom line: Milk is magic.
No, wait – bottom line: A company can still be scummy if the way they mislead their customers is technically legal.
update 7/29/10 –
Here is another’s account – I’m pasting it directly from my comments:
I just got a visit too and decided to Google the company. Thank you for posting this. They did approach me EXACTLY like you said, making it seem like they were an employee of the school district. We’re homeschoolers, so I immediately assumed the district was phishing for information. She asked very personal questions and I became skeptical. She wanted the specific curriculums we use, what kind of grades my children get. It just seemed like a very invasive line of questioning. I did not invite her in, but made her give her pitch on my front porch. I told her I could not make buying decisions without my husband and she wanted to come back. I finally got rid of her, but not before she asked about my neighbors. I know who they are, when they are home etc. But I only told her I *think* they might have children. Now I feel like I should not have said anything.
I just called my districts public relations department and hope they can do something about people deceptively using their name to sell books.
I’m really struck by the description of a perfect stranger, posing as an agent of the school district, asking people about their neighbors children and when they are home – – I mean, how obviously scandalous can you get in this day and age? This is a standard practice for a successful company? Prying private information from neighbors? Who is to say they don’t later come around to rob these homes, going by the information shared (from well-meaning neighbors) about when people are and are not home?! Truly insane.
Thank you for the comment – and I’ll keep this post open to ongoing updates, as it is heavily trafficked and informative about a serious problem company.
New Update 9/8/11:
Be wary of these people asking for a drink and to use your bathroom. Several people are commenting on this common behavior among their Southwestern agents. It sounds harmless enough – but it is clearly a way an agent can further insinuate themselves into your home, and gather further private information about you and your family (the contents of your medicine cabinet – the layout of your bedrooms and windows, etc.).
If another Southwestern agent comes to my home, I plan on calling the police.
It isn’t enough to kick them out – they are preying on our communities and gullible people who give out the private information of others. There is no way that a business model like this should function in today’s world – it is a testament to how lonely people are at home with their children, to low education standards, and to ignorance about the potential abuses of private information.
Taking these disadvantaged students away from their homes in order to make desperation their primary motive to sell substandard materials in a dishonest fashion is despicable and should never be rewarded. Any money spent on these materials is money used to continue this abuse – not benefit poor students.
At the time of this update – over 6,400 people have come here to see this information.
In response to some rude messages from Southwestern salespeople, I thought I’d share some more links to help those stopping by to look for information.
The story is repetitive. A family taking umbrage with the sales techniques and rightfully being suspicious of people coming to them asking for private information about neighborhood children and when their neighbors are at home. They inform local parents and the police – and if the news makes it into local media – Southwestern takes the time to do damage control that fails to address everything that is dishonest about their approach. Apparently, it remains profitable for them to put out scattered fires, and people ultimately don’t care enough to get out the word about Southwestern to effect change.
http://www.lazylightning.org/southwestern-book-reps-not-licensed-not-wanted This piece is useful regarding the fact that the salespeople are not always properly licensed – in which case the local police have more options in ending the harassment and preventing the gathering of information under false pretenses.
http://www.desototimes.com/articles/2007/08/22/news/news02.txt A piece about a Southwestern salesman arrested for his suspect behavior and selling in an illegal fashion. There is a “balance” counterpoint in the piece explaining that he was a NICE Southwestern salesman arrested for his suspect behavior and selling in an illegal fashion.
Useful information about Southwestern from the Better Business Bureau:
INFORMATION FOR CUSTOMERS:
By Federal law, customers who purchase Southwestern products from the student dealers have three days from the date of purchase to cancel their order. Saturday is included by Federal law as a business day. Southwestern is a third party to the contract between the students and customer and can only act on the student’s behalf within the three-day cooling off period.
After ordering products, be sure to keep the sales receipt given to you by the student. It is a contract with the student of your intentions to purchase the product. If in the event you do not receive the product you ordered, Southwestern will guarantee delivery if you have a valid receipt. Call Southwestern’s Customer Contact Center at 888-551-5901 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternate Business Names
The Hadden Group, The Southwestern Company, Southwestern Publishing Company, Southwestern Business Resources, SBR-Southwestern Business Resources, Southwestern Advantage
http://www.salem-news.com/articles/february232010/southwestern-company-ew.php This article was subject to a partial legal retraction by the Southwestern Company – but, this depiction wasn’t forcibly retracted: The group operates a web of companies and employs hundreds of independent contractors who are used to disguise their criminal activities. When an accusation of criminal activity isn’t required in a retraction – what does that tell you?
A recent Southwestern “intern” posted about how the police advised her to leave the program. Here is a sample of her post:
This is a horrible company which takes advantage of young people. I’m so thankful the cops talked me into leaving and wish I had found this blog before I had agreed to do this. If nothing else, they need to figure out a way (maybe a buddy system) to keep the students safe and they need to be much more transparent about their operations and charges. It’s amazing this company can get away with all the stuff they do. It is disgusting they can work someone 80 plus hour a week and not pay them at least minimum wage for when that person doesn’t make a sale (which, other companies do have to do. But because this is considered an “internship”, this doesn’t apply).
The “interns” (can’t legally be called employees – because then they would be assured minimum wage) are all-too-often well-meaning college kids trying to take financial burden off of their parents’ shoulders – while endangering themselves in ways the parents would never approve of.
The Southwestern Company itself (or some of its enterprising “interns”) have been attempting to post promotion for the company on this page. If the posts were replies to the contents of the OP or the comment threads, I’d be happy to approve their inclusion (sans the half dozen links to SW promotional/subscription sites online). They aren’t – so it ain’t happening.
Also – there is a particularly daft person who has tried on several occasions to post the accusation that this blog is run by a competitor book-seller. By all means, look over the blog. Find a single reference to any sales network, publisher of educational materials, or other potential competition to Southwestern. She (assuming gender) shouts to the rafters that is is obvious, says to check the comment thread, etc. Nope – won’t be approving weirdo conspiracy theories or outright lies designed to invalidate the feedback of the many people who experienced the same thing I did – and continue to every day despite claims that it doesn’t happen and that I’ve misrepresented anything at all.
This individual also makes the claim that this is the only place online where anyone has anything bad to say about Southwestern – ignoring the 20+ internal links that prove the contrary, and the whole communities online devoted to exposing this company for what it is (some run by ex-interns, happy to describe how hard it was to leave and overcome the lasting damage of SW’s influence in their lives). She says that her posts not being included is mysterious, suspicious, proof that she’s right. Hate to burst her bubble (just kidding, I like that part a little bit).
Another asked, in an unprintable diatribe, why I would maintain this web post after just one encounter with the Southwestern salespeople. The answer is: because thousands of people visit to look for the information every month. I wish that information had been more readily obtained when I did my own web search the day my home was compromised by someone pretending to work for our school district. Maybe someday it will make sense to you. When you have kids, maybe you will understand if someone enters your home by telling lies designed to prey upon your parenting instincts. Maybe it’ll irk you when they display a disturbing amount of information gathered dishonestly from your neighbors – about your kids, your job, and your daily schedule. It struck me then, as it does now, how destructive that intrusion could be for someone less prepared to question the sales pitch. For someone who blithely takes the salesperson at their word when they claim to be buddies with the principle sent to talk to us about our children.
It surprises me that you would even ask why I’d find this page valuable. It’s a rare day when less than 50 people visit to learn what I learned, often sharing that the exact same thing happened to them. That’s why.
Hello – it’s been a while since I checked in, and there was quite a backlog of comments to approve. As I mentioned earlier – the company has salespeople who’ve felt that this is the place to promote the program (maybe going with the “there’s no such thing as bad PR” philosophy), and I don’t publish those posts. Posts come in with positive experiences with the company (from employees and customers alike), and I include the ones that seem genuine and aren’t name-calling rants. Granted, this requires discernment – and I won’t pretend that’s something I can do entirely without bias – but I’ve tried to be fair.
Apologies to anyone who has been interested in seeing their comments included, or people seeking to see more current comments. One new SW development seems to be that they have business cards now. For all I know, there have been other such improvements. I found it hard to believe such a sales model worked 4 years ago – the fact that it operates today is fascinating. Surely, they are adapting their approach to a more technologically savvy consumer base. If you’d like to post what these changes have been, in the comments, I encourage it. At a certain point, misleading people has got to do more harm than good. Especially in an age when claims can be checked on your smartphone while the salesperson is talking to you.
Judging from the nearly one thousand hits a day during some stretches of the summer – the salespeople are still out in force, and people are still trying to figure out if they’re legit. I hope this page has continued to be a valuable resource to people deciding whether or not to be involved with them as a potential customer, or employee.
Again – a long while since I’ve stopped in to publish comments. I’m sorry that those of you who take the time to type out a helpful experience or perspective may feel that it didn’t see the light of day – – they do, eventually!
I *think* their business model must be going increasingly extinct, as people are doing background checks and becoming more savvy consumers – but as long as this information remains helpful, I’ll keep it up.
I could not maintain this post and also continue the blog in a way that felt safe or responsible. The vitriol and attention makes it clear that I could reasonably expect to face repercussions against myself and my family if the individuals commenting saw an opportunity to attack us. Indirectly, to be sure, Southwestern has cost us that option.