By JEFF LEHR
The Joplin Globe
JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - Roger Stinnett was chagrined to find a home-security company recently resuming monthly automatic payment taps on his and his wife's bank account.
Stinnett, a retired teacher and Episcopal priest, and his wife, Sherrie, lost their home of 17 years in the tornado that struck Joplin last May.
The roof was ripped off their house at 2607 S. Minnesota Ave. The ceilings collapsed. The place was rendered uninhabitable.
A couple of years before, a young man came to their door selling home-security systems for a company called APX Alarm Security Solutions Inc. If they subscribed, he told them, they could get their installation fee waived.
The Stinnetts are in their 60s and have some health problems. Out of concerns typical of people their age and in similar health, they already were paying $35 per month for a device to summon medical help that Sherrie Stinnett wore around her neck.
"When I discovered the cost for this whole security system was only $39.99 (per month), I decided that might be a good deal," Roger Stinnett said.
The Stinnetts signed a contract and received what seemed to be a satisfactory enough system, he said. It included devices for the front and back doors, a motion detector, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, a console for communicating with company monitors, and two key chain devices to summon emergency medical assistance when needed.
In the week that followed the tornado, Roger Stinnett called the company, which changed its name about a year ago to Vivint Inc., to let it know what happened and that most of the equipment appeared to have been ruined. And to let the company know that the couple no longer had a home in need of a security system.
Stinnett figured that would be the end of their account with the company, like getting the gas or electricity shut off. The company instead informed him that he could have a six-month grace period to get his home back in order, and then it could reinstall the equipment and resume the contract.
"I told them that was ridiculous," he said. "The house was uninhabitable. We were not rebuilding. Their response was dead silence."
The Stinnetts figured that was the end of that. They moved on with their lives. They now reside in another town and lease their home.
In December, Vivint resumed taking monthly payments out of their account, and Roger Stinnett contacted the company about it.
"That's when they told me I'd signed a 45-month contract," he said.
He said the company would not let him out of it. He either had to keep paying as a customer at the new home, get someone else to take the contract over, or pay off the fees for the remaining months (almost $700). Stinnett said the company told him that if he stopped the payments, the matter would go to a collection agency.
He acknowledged that he did not read the contract carefully before signing and did not realize he was committing to as long a period as he did. But he thinks the company could be more sympathetic to the plight of those who lost their homes in the tornado.
The Stinnetts apparently are not the only tornado-uprooted customers in the Joplin area reporting the same type of experience with Vivint.
Kathy McDonald, a hospital account representative in her 60s, related a similar experience to the Globe.
McDonald said she called her bank and halted authorized payments to the company the first week of June, after the destruction of her home. She said Vivint began calling her in October, telling her that she had been given a three-month grace period and that her bill was a couple of months past due.
She told the company she was a tornado victim. She had moved in with a friend and later into a rental home.
McDonald said the company told her that she needed to obtain documentation of the destruction of her home from the Joplin police and fire departments. Vivint kept calling her back and threatening to turn her over to a collection agency. She said the company offered at one point to cancel her contract if she would just pay the past-due charges for those months after her home was destroyed.
Lisa Davis, a spokeswoman for the company based in Provo, Utah, told the Globe on Friday: "This may be a misunderstanding at customer service or something."
She said the company has a "twofold" policy in cases in which a customer's home is destroyed. She said a grace period is generally granted while the customer seeks a new residence.
"If they get into a (new) home, then we'll replace all of their equipment for free and then resume their contract," Davis said.
If the customer is not able to rebuild or buy a new home and winds up renting, the company will terminate the contract, she said. Vivint primarily serves homeowners, not renters, she said. But accounts must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Davis said the company has been aware of the tragedy in Joplin from the outset, and that it sent service technicians and a sales crew to help customers affected by the storm and to assist in the overall tornado relief effort. She said Vivint has about 500 customers in Joplin.
Davis asked for time to look into the customer service accounts of the Stinnetts and McDonald and get back to the newspaper about their complaints. She later called the Globe and said both customers' contracts were being canceled as "hardship exceptions."
Roger Stinnett said Saturday that he had yet to hear from Vivint. He said if what Davis said proves to be true, he would be happy. He had complained already to Better Business Bureaus in Springfield and in Utah, as well as the Missouri attorney general's office.
McDonald said she received a phone call late Friday from an apologetic representative of Vivint who asked her what he could do for her. She said she told him to cancel her account with no balance due, and he agreed. She said she then asked for it in writing.
She wonders if other tornado victims may be having trouble with the company.
"It's not fair anyone would have to go through all this," she said.
Information from: The Joplin Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com