Our Mistakes Kill You: 5 Lessons Of An ADT Alarm Technician
Thanks to the technified world we live in today, your options for securing your home range from "lock your doors at night" to "spend absurd amounts of money on robots that'll scream at burglars if they try to break in." But as long as pesky laws keep us from arming these bots with rotary chain guns, you'll still be relying on the system's manufacturer to listen for that alarm and do something about it.
The biggest player in this market is ADT. You've probably seen their TV commercials, which feature relieved housewives talking about how their home alarm system saved them from certain death and/or torture. Something has always seemed a bit off with those ads, so we talked to Carlos Murillo, who worked behind the scenes at the company. He told us ...
The Cops Won't Arrive Soon Enough To Stop A Burglary In Progress
Burglar alarm systems advertise dramatic situations in which a bad guy breaks in, triggers an alarm, and the cops swoop in before the villain can make it to wherever the homeowners are sleeping:
Warning: YouTube may show you an ad before showing you this ad.
Here's the reality: Even if you're lucky enough to live in an area where cops respond to alarms (and we'll have more on that in a moment), they still may not respond quickly enough. The alarm doesn't summon police directly, you see -- it alerts our call center. Then, someone at that center phones you. He or she waits for you to pick up so they can ask if you're aware that the alarm is going off. The company only goes to the next step if you say that something's wrong, give an incorrect verbal password (pre-established to make sure you're not a burglar in a wig), or fail to answer the phone.
Often, that next step is calling a second number. Many police departments force alarm companies to try two numbers to reach the homeowner, a consequence of these systems generating so many false alarms (and I'll have more to say about that, too). The cops don't want to send out a car unless they're really sure. Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama each have a statewide rule for this. If you can't provide a second number (because, say, you live alone and don't know your immediate neighbors), the police won't come, period. Those lonely hermits with no friends and only one number to call? Too bad! Any good hermit should have booby-trapped their front door with a dangling shotgun.*
*Do not plant booby traps around your home
On the flipside, you can give us four or five numbers to call, which is an equally terrible idea. Think of it this way: If nobody picks up, that's 30 seconds of ringing, maybe 10-20 seconds of the recording explaining the person can't get to the phone right now, and then the time it takes to leave a message detailing what's going on. So by the time the agencies are contacted, around five or six minutes have passed, which is a big deal in a real emergency.
So only after the alarm company fails to reach anyone does a call go to the police. Burglar alarms are low-priority, and dispatchers are snappy and curt when we call. I honestly can't blame them -- considering the alarms are only rarely the result of an actual crime, we're mostly a costly annoyance. And when the police are set off, that can take the most time of all because the response time depends on the availability of the nearest patrol car.
"You got any loft rentals above the station?"
What this means is that your alarm will still make a loud noise, which might scare a nervous burglar away. But any dedicated (or sufficiently crazy/high) robber can break in, head right for your jewelry and electronics (or you), and then head out with the alarm wailing helplessly away in the background the whole time.
False Alarms Almost Render The Systems Useless
ADT burglar alarms are extremely sensitive -- that part of the ads is true -- but as a result, they're going off constantly. False alarms are such a big problem that ADT has a FAQ specifically about them. But it's an even bigger issue than they admit publicly: According to official internal statistics, 99 percent of our alerts are false alarms. Sure, the system can pick up motion when the system is armed and you're out, but it also goes off whenever something hits a panel. Or kids are running around. Or because of pets (the most common culprits). Powerful sneezes can sometimes set burglar alarm systems off. That's not a joke; we have shock sensors for doors and windows, and if you let off a particularly strong one nearby, it can get you a call from our dispatchers.
Do not have sex within five yards of a panel.
And believe me, it can get annoying. Imagine this going off every time your cat or dog crosses the house:
Next, imagine the dog's reaction.
All this alarmitude might seem like overkill, but security companies make sensitive burglar alarms because that's the sort people buy. "Better safe than sorry," we (rightly) assume the customers will mutter to themselves. In reality, oversensitive systems make everyone unsafe. In cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, police departments are so sick of security systems crying wolf that they'll no longer respond to a call about a home burglar alarm unless they get a separate call verifying that a burglary really is in progress. These cities do this because they're the ones with the most crime and the most need to divert those cops elsewhere -- but they're also where you're most likely to get burgled.
You can't blame the cops for this, either. They're already struggling to work with limited resources, and having to visit the same house several times because of allergy season is a huge waste of time and money. And they'll gladly pass that cost to you. As ADT itself says, "false alarm fees can cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars." So yeah, the system may very well deter an intruder, but you also might end up going bankrupt because your cat is an asshole (you know he's doing that shit intentionally).
ADT: Unmatched against cat burglars.
People Die Because Of Our Fuckups
If you've seen the ads, you picture the ADT monitoring center as something like 24's CTU:
"Red alert! We've got several square inches of the monitor that aren't blue."
"Better launch a code blue, stat!"
It's hilarious how wrong that depiction is. Like, that's the photoshopped "after" picture, and we're the "before." In reality, our "headquarters" is an office call center, except even less formal (jeans and a T-shirt are my go-to clothing choice). We eat at our cubicles, we listen to music ... hell, we have pizza parties like the kind you'd win in middle school if your class did the most fundraising. So it's not much different from where many of you are reading this right now, only our callers might have a murderer in their house.
Yeah, that's the other difference from most cubicle jobs: If the wrong button gets pushed or the wrong box gets clicked, somebody might die. False alarms or not, real cases do happen. And mistakes get made.
We're not allowed to order sausage since one dropped from a slice and caused a three-hour standoff.
For instance, if a crazed criminal breaks into your home and hears the alarm go off, he may decide to put a gun to your head and tell you to disable the system. It's a terrifying scenario, but it's common enough that we need to have a safety measure. For these cases, ADT provides a "duress code." Enter that instead of the disable code, and the system appears to disarm but actually sends a silent alarm to ADT's monitoring center. We contact the police immediately and describe a robbery in progress, and that's as high-priority as a direct 911 dial. That's all well and good ... if you're composed enough to enter the code properly. And if the robber doesn't know the code already and retaliate when he sees what you're doing -- ADT's default duress code, which you're supposed to change, is freely available on the Internet for any enterprising bad guy to look up. Oh, and if the code doesn't just fail, which it does sometimes.
There have been cases where people were confronted by an intruder and entered the duress code, at which point they stalled as long as possible, awaiting their heroes and wondering with growing panic why they didn't hear sirens. The horrible reason no one came? There was a mistake. We either never set up a duress code on our end or the tech didn't program it in, so the transmission seemed like a weird, out-of-place signal. So instead of calling the police, we attempted to call the customer about it while they were being held at gunpoint.
"No answer ... Eh."
ADT has been involved in lawsuits over this kind of stuff before. Sometimes people explicitly choose not to get these duress codes (like in the case I linked), but there have been more than enough (read: more than zero) instances where the mistake was on us and people lost their lives. When something happens, we don't get names or anything like that for legal reasons, but it's emphasized really heavily to us: When you don't do your damn job, people bite the dust. And some of us still don't.
Deceptive Marketing Hides An Insecure System
ADT controls 25 percent of the home security market. In practice, depending on your area, they may hold much more than that -- kind of like how Comcast allegedly controls no more than 30 percent of the cable market but may be your only choice. In previous years, ADT has been legally found to have held monopolies in 27 cities and was forced to leave them. Their revenue still grew, thanks to a bunch of smaller providers like Defender, Security Systems and Monitoring, and Protect Your Home, all of which provide ADT products and services. If this sounds suspiciously deceptive, that's because it totally is. We're specifically told not to mention ADT if we need to talk to customers who are using these dealer companies.
"Oh, you're with TotallyNotADT? I can help you with that!
Or I can recommend an alternative: DefintelyNotADT."
And there is no shortage of customers, thanks to some quite borderline sales tactics. There are such rampant issues with shady sales reps scamming people (especially older folk) that we have an entire legal team dedicated solely to combating it. "But wait!" you exclaim, "I've seen mention ADT positively on The Today Show / on the radio / at a consumer expo! The Safety Mom would never lie to me! NEVER!"
Sorry to disappoint you, you sad, sad reader, but that personality was paid off, maybe upwards of $100,000. Crazy, huh? It's almost like ADT can't find anybody who actually likes the service (Consumer Affairs gives us one star out of five based on reviews), so they hire people to pretend they don't passionately despise us. Which, by the way, is illegal as hell. It's a major no-no to pay endorsers who pass themselves off as impartial reviewers, so the FTC sued ADT.
Hence Safety Mom's new court-mandated "Sponsored Content" forehead tattoo.
And you can bet that's not the only legal action we're facing. A class-action lawsuit seeks damages for ADT's deceptive marketing because the company claims that its systems are secure from hackers. The signals are in fact unsecured and unauthenticated and can be manipulated by software-defined radio (SDR) with a device that costs about $10. Hackers can use such a device to disable your system from a house away or even monitor you while you're inside your own home.
But trust me, some of our competition is even shadier. In Utah, thousands of customers have reported "salesmen" who arrived claiming to be from their current provider, there to upgrade the hardware. The homeowner would scratch their chin and say, "Huh, you're not the usual tech guy," but they'd let the invaders go ahead. The salesmen then installed their own equipment, and without even realizing it, the customer had switched over to a new company. You might think that's a local problem, but you'd be wrong. This is definitely a widespread issue, and it's not getting any better. Hell, ADT even made a video to teach you how to not get conned by these scumbags:
a.k.a. "how not to stop paying us our monthly fee."
Yes, We Do Save Lives
There is plenty of debate out there as to whether or not alarm systems are worth it. It comes down to the cost -- it's not like having one is going to make your house more likely to get broken into. And if a burglar must choose between a house with an ADT sign out front or one without, he'll probably pick the latter (though it also works if you replace "ADT sign" with "mean-looking dog"). High-end packages start from $70 a month plus installation and equipment, and ultimately, what you're paying for is a deterrent that might, in the process, make the police hate you.
ADT doesn't sell an anti-cop alarm, but we're working on it.
Though I should note that some systems also come with smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and they do work. There are plenty of stories, like one of a woman who had a carbon monoxide detector go off in her house but refused to leave, since she had her doors and windows open. The ADT rep kept calling until she finally left the house, and when firefighters arrived, they told her that if she'd been in there for half an hour longer, she would have died.
In many cases like this (and in every case that gets picked up by the local news), ADT awards the fire department $5,000 for their efforts, holds a big ceremony, and flies out the agent who called the customer to be at the event. Some cynical people might say that this is all a marketing move, but I like to think it's because the company takes as much pride as it can in our work. We're saving lives, after all, even amidst all those false alarms and fear-mongering ads.
When you're on the side of the firefighters, you're kind of a hero.
So do what you will with this information. ADT isn't an outright scam, but it isn't a magical force field around your life, either. If it makes you worry less, maybe it's worth it to you. But the next time you're near your monitored doors or windows, make sure you don't sneeze too hard.
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Reasons The TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective) and 5 Nightmares You Live Working for America's Worst Company.
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