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This article is reproduced here without permission under the fair use doctrine. Originally published at http://www1.naplesnews.com/npdn/news/article/0,2071,NPDN_14940_2781192,00.html
Copyright © 2003-2004 Naples Daily News.

Traveling sales crews alarm law enforcement agencies

By BRIGID O'MALLEY, bmomalley at domain naplesnews.com
January 4, 2004

In Tennessee, a 66-year-old woman was murdered in her home, pinned to the floor with a kitchen knife. She'd been beaten, raped and stabbed.

In Ohio, a 14-year-old baby sitter was raped by a man who had talked his way into the house. She was assaulted for nearly an hour before she could call for help.

In New York, a 33-year-old woman was slain in her home after she caught a man stealing jewelry from her bedroom. She was stabbed to death.

In each case, the suspect was a member of a traveling magazine sales crew.

There are an estimated 50,000 young men and women between 18 and 27 years old walking the streets across the United States, armed with magazine sales binders or pushing cleaning products.

Some bite at the lure of an exciting party lifestyle.

Others want the travel to places like sunny, wealthy Naples.

And still others have criminal records including sex crimes, robbery and burglary. They're out looking for more targets.

While only a few turn violent, across the nation groups like them, including the sellers who recently blanketed Southwest Florida, are alarming law enforcement agencies.

Their appearances on the streets of neighborhoods such as Kings Lake or Vanderbilt Beach in Collier County bring deputies who check for county permits and then make arrests if they don't have them. One man stole $5,000 worth of jewelry from a Pelican Marsh home, Collier sheriff's deputies say.

Earlene Williams, who runs a watchdog group based in New York City called Parent Watch, said these crews can be dangerous within themselves. There are instances of rape, alcohol abuse and even dangerous drivers who transport the groups cross-country, her group says.

She works to bring attention to the problems within the sales field, from questionable recruiting practices to crimes these sellers can bring to a community.

"They're a large network," she said. "Very large. Some of them are being abused. Some of them are getting into alcohol and drugs. Some of them are dying. And people who are opening their doors to them are getting hurt, too."

But the president of one of the companies that fields magazine sellers, Naples-based Fidelity Reader Service, said there are many more success stories and legitimate operations than tragedies and bad examples.

"Her concerns are the same as mine even though it might seem like we're on the opposite sides of the fence," said Belo Kellam, the company's president who started selling magazines on the road nearly four decades ago.

The two have known each other for more than 20 years.

Kellam said Benjamin Franklin and the first newspaper he published in colonial times had agents in the field, selling the news. The most productive sellers won a trip to Virginia.

"Even then," he said, "there were incentives."

Williams has dedicated her life to keeping the sellers safe. She adds to her organization's Web site regularly, with everything from news stories about arrests to putting up the face of a young seller who has gone missing. There's a phone number to call and an e-mail address to write if you're stranded or if you're a parent searching for your child.

"It can be heartbreaking," Williams said.

Help wanted

The help wanted ad reads: "A travel job: A great first job. Over 18, travel coast-to-coast with young co-ed business group. $500 signing bonus."

Spring break is prime time for recruiting.

Kids are enjoying the beach. Soon-to-be high school graduates are looking for work. Young people tired of their dead-end job see an opportunity to travel. People wanted on warrants see a way out of town.

Florida is fertile ground for recruiting.

"They seem to congregate in Florida," Williams said. "They're always recruiting, especially during spring break. They follow the party."

The party is a big part of the promise of making $1,000 or more a week. And young people fall for it.

"Drugs, sex, booze," Williams said. "They hire attractive, clean-cut kids who are desperate. They take the most ordinary kid. They're desperate for money and friends."

Williams said there are recruiting bounties: $50 for men and $100 for women. Crew members are encouraged to become romantically or sexually involved with other members.

"They want to keep you," she said. "They are emotionally preyed upon."

What many get for their hard work is very little money, a bus ticket home because they have been fired or a heavy case of homesickness.

"We do some advertising," Kellam said of finding workers. "But mostly it's word of mouth."

What the word on the street tells them is that it's easy money. And it's a job that's available right now.

Williams said it often takes digging to figure out who exactly owns and operates the companies that are employing young people.

"They will hire managers and say they're a married couple," she said. "Then they'll use both of their initials for the name of the company."

The young people will only know their immediate supervisor in the group of a dozen or so traveling from place to place, normally in vans or sport utility vehicles.

The market for on-street, traveling sales workers is growing, Williams said.

As advertising prices increase and the do-not-call registry grows, more magazine companies are trying to find customers by going door-to-door.

It's a multimillion-dollar business.

Industry experts estimate the door-to-door sales might bring in more than $50 million a year.

"It's lucrative. I'll say that," Kellam said.

While owners live a more lucrative lifestyle, young people who have worked in the field say they are stacked up in hotel rooms and exposed to a drug-and-alcohol culture after spending 12 hours hawking magazines.

The jobs, often called the "sweatshops of the streets," don't always allow easy ways home for young people who find themselves working thousands of miles away from their families.

Lessons to learn

Selling magazines can lead to millions, those successful in the sales field say.

It teaches young people about life, everything from fiscal responsibility to relationships.

Kellam, 61, and his former wife, Mary Kellam, 36, met while out in the field. She was an agent and he was a supervisor.

"I just took the job because of the travel," Mary Kellam said.

She still works in customer service at her former husband's company, based at the Naples airport, and lives in Naples with their children. She said field sales helped her in later real estate sales pursuits. She worked in sales for six years, moving up the chain.

She was 18 years old when she started, joining in Michigan.

Long hours hitting the streets, competing for sales and bonuses, took up most of her time. She was always trying for the reward trips to Brazil, Hawaii or Mexico.

"There were days when I didn't make a dime," she said. "There were days when I made a ton of money."

Although some of the former sellers say they didn't get nearly as much money as promised, Kellam said on a recent weekend he paid out $4,351 to 38 people for a week's work.

The top seller, a 22-year-old woman, earned $1,800 that week. The lower end of the earning scale made $200 or $300 in regular paychecks, he said.

Some companies keep the earned money "on the books" and deduct it for expenses, draining much of what the sellers made. Incentives and bonuses such as trips to far-away places, even London or Mexico, are one way to keep sellers motivated.

"We teach them to pay themselves first," he said, adding that they learn how to succeed in business while on the road.

On her off time during her days in sales, Mary Kellam visited tourist attractions and shopped instead of hanging out at bars and clubs. She was more interested in selling and succeeding.

Mary Kellam said she has trained and recruited dozens of people. The average stay is about six months, but some stay for years.

"It really isn't for everybody," she said.

There's always a big bash around the holidays so the young people don't miss their families. Often they travel to Fort Lauderdale, where they are treated to a splashy, fun party, complete with a barbecue and a yacht.

"Some have relationships with their families. Some don't," Mary Kellam said.

She said if the young people wanted to leave, they could ask any of their customers to use a telephone and get out.

Kellam started his door-to-door sales career in 1964. He'd wash cars to ensure a sale or take out the trash to get a buy on his route in the 1960s and 1970s.

He said he knows of young people who trade sex for a magazine sale. Some have landed in jail when the customer accused them of rape.

"We give them the message at sales meetings that you never know what you're walking into," he said. "You stick to business."

Checking out

In 2001, a murder in Knox County, Tenn., threw a harsh spotlight on magazine sales crews.

A magazine salesman who worked for American Community Services, an Indiana-based company, killed a 66-year-old grandmother, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported.

Rodger Eric Broadway is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to her murder.

He was selling magazines when he came to the home of Eskalene DeBorde. When she didn't answer the door, he walked in and confronted her, news accounts say. Broadway beat her with a hammer and ashtray, raped her and then stabbed her in the neck, the News-Sentinel reported.

Had his employers done a background check, they would have found that he had a robbery conviction and recently had been released from prison, the News-Sentinel reported. His rap sheet included arrests on aggravated battery and aggravated assault.

Williams, who favors extensive criminal checks, said the companies want to hire workers quickly and aren't interested in background checks.

"They want them in a hurry," the industry watchdog said.

Bellam of the Naples company said a former FBI agent has done background checks on his employees for the past six months. He now employs about 100 agents and four managers.

He said the previous search process he was using was too expensive for too little. For $49 for each new hire, he wasn't getting much information. As a member of the National Field Selling Association, a trade association group, he's required to do background checks.

"They were only doing hometown checks," he said. "If they were a pedophile in Spokane, I wouldn't know about it."

In 2002, Nicholas Kuhlman of Naples, a Fidelity Reader Service employee, was arrested on a charge of sexual indecency with a minor in Arkansas when he exposed himself to a 6-year-old girl. He is serving six years in prison.

Kellam said he knew Kuhlman's parents when he hired him. He said there was some misunderstanding about a Playboy magazine that Kuhlman had in the bushes in the girl's neighborhood.

"There was a background on him after-the-fact," Kellam said.

Mary Kellam said she gets less than a half-dozen calls each year about items missing from homes where their agents have visited.

"We check on all of them," she said. "We search the kid."

In 2001, another Fidelity employee was arrested in Washington on a criminal trespassing and burglary charge.

"If there's a problem, we find out and if it's a big problem, we'll send the kid home," she said.

Belo Kellam said the percentage of problems with arrests and crimes that are committed because of a lack of a sufficient background check point to some shortcomings. He recently fired a manager who was drinking on duty.

"As they say, 'Where there's smoke, there's fire,'" he said. "(The percentage of problems) is higher than it should be. But that's because of a lack of responsibility. If you fire the bad managers, you get rid of the problems."

He said he's not sure that a more intense look at new hires would have prevented any crime.

"I don't know if a background check would have made a difference," Kellam said.

Williams calls Kellam's company "not one of the worst ones."

By the law

Some lawmakers are trying to put regulations in place for door-to-door sales companies, forcing them to register each employee.

Some even want them to close up shop, calling door-to-door sales an outdated service in a high-tech world.

If the companies who field the agents don't know who is in their employment, some police agencies want to find out. In some areas of the country, police require names and Social Security numbers of sellers. In others, there is no registration necessary.

Williams said some lawmakers have tried to make companies abide by guidelines. There were congressional hearings in the 1980s that didn't lead to much. She said a small change in the law has allowed racketeering statutes to be used, but much hasn't happened yet as a result.

"It's really a patchwork quilt out there," she said of the laws and regulations.

In Collier County, a $50 occupational license is required to sell door-to-door and it covers all of the agents.

All of the arrests Collier deputies made this winter of sellers were for failure to have the proper license. Some of those arrested in Naples have been from as far away as California, Arizona and Idaho.

Collier sheriff's officials say they don't get notified of the crews' whereabouts.

Several Fidelity sellers were arrested in the past year for lack of proper permit and their arrival in neighborhoods was heralded by concerned residents.

That was a paperwork problem, both Kellams said.

Any brushes with the law could end up with the young people in jail or even left behind as the crew moves on, Williams said.

Belo Kellam said the door-to-door sales jobs get some bad publicity because of a few crimes.

Important life lessons are being taught to the workers, he said.

"You never hear about the good things," he said. "There are good things out there. ... We're teaching them things they could never learn in school."

Williams, of the watchdog group, has come to a much different conclusion about the practice in general.

"These kids are lured in. They are promised money and travel. They don't get the money," Williams said. "And they are in danger."

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