- Stickers like these prompted police action over Christmas weekend. (Photo: Courtesy Jared Critchfield)
You're planning to be away over the holidays, so you do all the things you're supposed to do to reduce your chances of being the victim of a burglary while you're gone: Arrange for newspaper deliveries to halt, ask a friend or neighbor to bring in the mail, set some lights on timers, and so on. But imagine the first day after you leave, some aggressive door-to-door marketer ends up leaving a bright yellow sign on your front door that might as well scream, "I'm out of town, please rob me!"
That's more or less what some residents in the eastern end of Capitol Hill say happened on Dec. 23 and 24. Houses on C Street SE from 14th all the way 18th, plus a few other blocks in the same area, were blanketed with bright yellow "Sorry we missed you!" stickers courtesy Maryland-based Long Fence and Home. Trouble was, the stickers looked awfully shady — no business name anywhere to be found, with an offer of a "Homeowner's energy package" and a toll-free number that, when dialed over the weekend, connected to an endless loop of voice mail boxes.
Cue ANC 6B Commissioner Jared Critchfield, who took note of a couple messages about the stickers on the New Hill East email list. "There was one on my door (also not on all doors of the block) so they are working a large area," wrote Mindy Mitchell. "Thought the wording was strange as it seemed to imply that I had requested an energy audit." Worse still, residents worried that their out of town neighbors might be about to fall prey to some sort of burglary scam. "If those yellow stickers remain up, well, it's like an invitation to a break-in," noted Larry Janezich.
So Critchfield passed along the messages to First District MPD Lt. Michael Thornton, who then arranged for a unit of uniformed officers to go door-to-door where they saw stickers and check in with residents.
"If this was part of a burglary scam, if the sticker was on the door for a couple of days, they could have known that no one was home," says Thornton. When his officers found no one at a residence with a sticker, Thornton instructed them to go ahead and remove it and return it later during a follow-up visit. Even if it turned out to be overkill, Thornton says, it was worth it just for the chance for his officers to meet more residents. Plus when they can possibly be prevented, "one burglary is too many."
So were the stickers actually part of a scam? Signs point to no, but the jury's still technically out. On Tuesday, a customer service rep for Long Fence and Home did answer the toll-free number printed on the fliers, and Lt. Thornton says he's since been in touch with at least one person who works there. A marketing manager for Long didn't return our call requesting comment, but Thornton says when he spoke to one employee there, they claimed they hadn't had anyone out placing stickers on doors since Dec. 21, and that they weren't answering the phone over the weekend due to the Christmas holiday.
UPDATE 4:46 p.m.: Long Fence and Home speaks! Marketing coordinator Kip Sithithavorn confirms that the yellow stickers were intended to market a free home energy packet and audit from the company's Long Energy Solutions division. The idea is that they'll come out to your house, give you a goody bag with things like free energy efficient lightbulbs inside, and then inspect your home for other potential energy savings. If they find something (and no doubt they do every time), they'll offer you a quote to perform the work themselves.
As for why the stickers are so generic looking and went up right before Christmas, Sithithavorn says the original idea was that "curiosity" might lead more homeowners to make the call. "I'm not sure where we stand now," though, he says, because he's heard so many complaints about the vagueness of the stickers at this point. The next printing might include the company's name, he says.
He also admits that this particular marketing plan, which he says has been in place for about three months now, had its best week ever the week before Christmas — something the company suspects might have been due to people mistaking the stickers for notices from shipping companies like FedEx or UPS. "Probably they were thinking it was for a package they had ordered," he says.
And what about those uniformed cops that ended up going all over the neighborhood to remove the stickers? "Obviously that wasn't our intention," Sithithavorn says. "I actually feel horrible about that."