Complaints against book seller cause solicitation permit to be revoked in Ludington; not renewed in Scottville.

July 23, 2015

claire_whitecomb_southwest_advantage_book_salesBy Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

The City of Ludington has pulled a solicitation permit for a book salesperson who has been working throughout Mason County this summer. That person’s sales permit in the City of Scottville expired on June 30.

Claire Whitcomb of Azle, Texas has been selling educational books on behalf of Southwestern Advantage of Nashville, Tennessee. Locally, she stays at 10768 N. M-37 near Irons, according to the vendor registration she filled out on May 26, 2015 with the City of Ludington.

About a month ago, comments on Facebook started appearing about Whitcomb’s sales techniques. Some of those comments were compliments while many others were complaints. Those complaining have said that Whitcomb often shows up at the home too early in the morning or too late at night. She begins her sales approach very politely but if the person begins to question her or starts to show that he/she is not interested, the sales approach becomes more forceful and often insulting.

Kandi Nichols of Scottville said Whitcomb showed up at her house at 7:40 a.m.

“I was getting ready to leave for work,” Nichols said. “I explained that I needed to go to work and did not have time to talk to her. She was very rude and basically stood on my front porch and told me I don’t care about my kids’ education because I did not have time to listen to her sales pitch. Had to ask her to leave multiple times. She was unbelievably rude if you are not buying what she is selling.”

Southwestern Advantage, according to an article on Wikipedia, is a company that recruits and trains college and university students to sell educational books, software, and website subscriptions door-to-door using direct selling methods. Students participating in the program are independent contractors, not employees of the company, selling the products directly to private families at retail for delivery at the end of the season.

Part of the sales technique, which has been widely blogged about on the Internet, is for the salesperson to try to obtain the names and addresses of the people they are soliciting and then use those names as “referrals” when they visit others. They also ask those they are soliciting to give them a list of friends and neighbors who have young children.

This technique has caused a lot of conversation on Facebook.

On July 19, Whitcomb wrote on her Facebook page:

“Dear Mason County, I am enjoying serving your community this summer. As those of you who have met me already know I just graduated from Baylor University in my home state of Texas. I am not from the schools, but a independent dealer of Southwestern Advantage. Southwestern Advantage was started in 1855 and is a summer internship program that several thousand college students participate in across America. We have a(n) A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. Below is a picture of my authorized dealer ID and my vendor registration with the city of Ludington. I love sharing the advantage of our educational resources with your community and am excited to be here all summer!”

Stephani Brigham of Ludington purchased books and computer apps from Whitcomb.

“Was she pushy? Yes. But she worked with me to get only what I could afford,” Brigham said. “My kids love the apps and are learning a lot. The books show you how we were taught and how they are being taught now. If you still don’t get it you can go online and it will have a tutor show you.”

Brigham said Whitcomb came to her house about 9:30 p.m.

On July 14, Christina Root of Ludington was visited by Whitcomb.

“My daughters talked Claire and she was very nice, professional and answered all of our questions,” Root said. “The resources are some that we need in our house so I chose to say yes. I didn’t feel pressured at all.”

Charles Smith of Scottville said he had a great experience with Whitcomb.

“She is a great young woman trying hard to see that children get help with school work that parents have difficulty understanding,” Smith said. “At the price these services sell for much lower than the cost of a tutor. It also includes online services with more specialized help. We bought these books after looking back at our son’s first year of high school and realizing he was going to need some help since school work has changed so much since me and my wife were in school. Our way of how we were taught just confuses our son more and makes the problem bigger.  We are encouraged and anxious to see the results this school year.”

Jeremy Verstrat and his family did not have a positive experience with Whitcomb at their Ludington home.

“When I asked her to leave the area earlier, a very suspicious guy stared at me as he walked by minutes after,” Verstrat said. “She was persistent and resilient and her tactics are in moral question.” Verstrat said Whitcomb has been to his house three times. Verstrat has been vocal on Facebook about the situation and has even posted photographs of Whitcomb’s vehicle.

Christa Soller, who lives in Ludington, said Whitcomb came to her house at 7:30 p.m. and then at 8 a.m. the next day. “That’s when I spoke to her. I did file a police report as Ludington Police Department wanted me to. I had originally just called to see what our solicitation laws were. There are two Claires,” Soller said metaphorically. “What I’m hearing is that the one who’s nice when you say yes & the one who becomes outright rude when you are not interested and flat out say you’re not interested.”

Ludington City Clerk Deb Luskin said Whitcomb’s permit to solicit in the city limits was originally from May 26 to May 31. However, as of Monday, July 20, the permit has now been revoked.

I never heard anything further about this permit until Monday, July 20 at 8 a.m. when Sgt. Steve Wietrzykowksi informed me of several complaints the police department received over the weekend,” Luskin said. “I explained to Steve that I typically will call the supervisor listed on the permit and inform them of the complaints and ask that they be rectified.  If these complaints continue, I pull the permit.  Yesterday, July 22 I had a phone call from a resident who complained about this vendor and so I promptly notified the supervisor, the vendor and the police department that the permit has been pulled.  This vendor is no longer able to solicit or vend in the city limits.  Today I received a complaint at the front counter at city hall that the resident had seen this vendor out vending last evening.  I called Police Chief Mark Barnett who has now spoken with the supervisor and informed her that a citation will be issued if this vendor continues to vend in the city limits.”

Scottville City Manager Amy Williams said Whitcomb’s permit to solicit in Scottville expired June 30 and that, due to complaints, it would not be renewed.

Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said his department has only received a couple complaints about Whitcomb. “You don’t need a permit to do those activities out in the county,” Cole said. “I’ve had some people approach me and I have seen complaints on social media, but only a couple people have actually called 911 to complain. Soliciting books is not illegal but when you start getting into some of the strong-armed techniques that people are accusing her of, then that’s illegal.”

Sheriff Cole said Whitcomb came into the sheriff’s office in May and presented her identification and informed his staff her intentions. Cole said a background check on her was conducted and she has no criminal past.

MCP attempted to contact Whitcomb through her Facebook page but did not get a response in time of posting this story.