On Your Side Alert: Be sure to read the fine print

Published: Sep. 23, 2014 at 7:51 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 24, 2014 at 3:00 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Security alarm companies' agreements are virtual "no fault" contracts that leave consumers with no recourse when their alarm systems fail, according to a WMC Action News 5 investigation.

Emily Garrett's Bartlett home caught fire during the Independence Day holiday weekend. She was away from the home at the time of the blaze. Bartlett firefighters saved the home from being destroyed after neighbors alerted BFD's dispatch via two cell phone calls. Bartlett Fire Marshal Howard McNatt said the cause of the fire is undetermined.

McNatt also confirmed Garrett's 24-hour monitored fire and security alarm system, sold and installed by Security Enterprises, Inc., of Bartlett, never activated, nor did it alert the fire department.

"I had fire, security and carbon monoxide monitoring, and nothing ever went off," Garrett said.

Per her agreement, Garrett was supposed to receive a cell phone alert. It never came.

She contacted Security Enterprises, Inc., to find out what happened.

She said she was told she violated section 7 of her alarm agreement. It says, "The customer is responsible for testing the system monthly."

"They told me my agreement was null and void, and they weren't responsible ... because I did not test the system regularly," Garrett said.

Security Enterprises, Inc. is a Better Business Bureau-accredited company with an A+ rating. Its office administrator, Carolyn Canfield, admitted Garrett's system did not activate the night of the fire. She also acknowledged its monitoring service (Monitronics) did not call Garrett's cell phone according to procedure.

But, referring to the agreement, Canfield insisted the failure of the system is Garrett's fault.

"The equipment has to be tested by the consumer," Canfield said. "There's no way for us to know there's a problem if they're not testing the system."

But it's a 24-hour monitored system. "What am I paying a monitoring company for if I'm the one doing the test?" Garrett asked.

"It is being monitored 24 hours," Canfield admitted. "But they have to test the system at least once a month so that we can see if there's any errors."

The monitoring system cannot troubleshoot remotely. "Not that I am aware of. It will pick up if there is a low battery," Canfield said.

The language requiring the consumer to test the system either monthly or weekly in nearly every company's document.

"It's kind of a standardized agreement in the alarm industry," said Germantown, TN, attorney and certified fraud examiner Kevin Snider, who has litigated disputes over security alarm failures.

What is also standard in every security alarm agreement: a limited liability clause.

It says if the alarm company "... should be found liable for loss" or for "negligence" or "failure to perform," the security alarm vendor's liability is limited to $1,000 or less.

"What the vendors are trying to do is insulate themselves from any and all liability, even if they actually caused the incident," Snider said.

"It's their home and their responsibility to test the system on a regular basis," insisted Canfield.

According to her paperwork, Garrett has maintained a system with Security Enterprises, Inc., for four years. With an initial installation and first month charge of $246.99, she has paid $37.99 a month since August 2010, according to the agreement.

The agreement also discloses that because Security Enterprises, Inc., uses a third-party monitoring service, it is not a "monitoring" agreement, even though it's a contract for a monitoring service.

It's unclear if Garrett has a legal let to stand on. "In the end, it is a written contract that you agreed to, and it gets back to the point that you need to read everything, and I mean everything, before you sign it," he said.

At Garrett's request, Canfield terminated the agreement without penalty and refunded her July payment.

"I just want to tell everybody to read the small print of (security alarm agreements)," Garrett said. "Ask questions when it is installed."

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