Though the weather report predicted rain, the sun was still shining when the white truck pulled smoothly up my driveway. Odd, I thought, I wasn't expecting any deliveries. Maybe they were lost?
Two well-groomed, thirty-ish white men in green shirts crisply embroidered with a company logo hopped out. "Hey," said the red-haired one. "Maybe you can help us out."
What followed is a bit of a blur, and like many the crime victim, I struggle to put the pieces together: Where did everything go wrong? Why was I so stupid? How could I possibly fall for this?
Here is what I remember:
The men said that a neighbor up the street turned down her regular meat order because she was recovering from a root canal. They wouldn't be back in the area until next week, so they'd really much rather sell the meat to me at cost than have to take it back to the warehouse.
At this point, I was pretty disinterested, especially after they handed me their brochure with their regular prices: $529 for a box of meat? Yeah, right. But then something happened. I was charmed, enchanted. The sequence of events is unclear, as happens in seduction. I do know that they complimented my chickens, my house, the landscape. Affable, chatty, and relaxed, they talked about everything from the weather to the fire history of the area. I recall their mentioning the company's A+ BBB rating. I know I thought a company doing business out here would have to be legit--the backcountry grapevine runs thick and wide.
They asked how long I'd lived here. Maybe that should have tipped me off: a newcomer would be less likely to have connections, and I'd been out here less than two years. It all just seemed like small talk at the time.
But they were pulling individually wrapped steaks and pieces of seafood out of the truck bed freezer now, laying them out for inspection. "See the marbling? See how all the excess fat has been cut away? This is choice meat or better, restaurant grade. You just can't get this in a store."
They were willing to sell me the meat at their cost, half the usual $1350. (Of course, I now realize that was part of the trick. Start with an outrageously high figure, and then any price mentioned afterwards--even if it's also outrageous--sounds pretty darn good.)
They told me that meat like this would be at least $12/lb. in the store, and I was getting it for $3.
I certainly didn't need that much meat. But $3 a pound sounded pretty good. I could . . . use it for parties? give it as gifts?
The red-haired guy said the other man was his supervisor and he was actually being evaluated that day. "If my boss weren't here," he said, "I wouldn't normally get to do this."
I said yes.
They unpacked the meat quickly, expertly fitting it all in the freezer of my garage refrigerator.
Heavy, dark clouds rolled in as they took my credit card info.
They pulled away, smiling and waving and have-a-nice-day-ing, and the storm's first rain drops began to fall.
I walked back to the garage through the rain and looked in the freezer. I laughed: this had to be one of the nuttiest things I'd ever done. I looked again . . . $3 a pound? No way was there over 200 pounds of meat in that freezer. I estimated it at no more than 60 pounds; that means I paid over $10/pound. The spell was lifting.
Time to hit the internet: their web site, though poorly designed, checked out, as did their BBB rating. Maybe most people would stop there. I'm not most people. A dogged researcher, I was on the trail now and not giving up.
Googling "meat delivery scam" generated 726,000 hits. From news reports to government publications to personal testimonies, site after site told the same story: The delivery truck pulls up, says an order fell through, you can get the meat at a steep discount. They fail to divulge the price per pound (or lie about it); they do not inform you of your 3-day right cancel as required by law. They take the boxes with them, destroying the evidence that the meat was not sold per pound, also required by law. The meat turns out to be utter crap.
So I picked up the phone, called the number on the brochure, and to my surprise, a pleasant-sounding woman answered. (After skimming the internet, I was fully expecting an automated "disconnected" message.) I started off, "This is sort of awkward . . ." and explained that I had to cancel the order. The pleasant woman put me on hold while she connected me to someone who could help me. Jason Russell was as warm and calm as his salesmen. Operations manager for Farm Fresh Foods, Inc., he said it was indeed a shame that some companies used such unethical tactics and that they hurt honest businesses like his, especially in this economy. When I raised the $3/lb. issue, he said I had misheard, that the price they gave me was $3 per piece. He reminded me of the one-year guarantee on the meat and urged me to try it and see for myself what high quality it was. He said that if the meat was returned, they would have to simply grind it up since it had left their possession.
And I said, okay, I would try the meat and see.
Meanwhile, I did additional research, this time focusing more closely on California. (The majority of hits from my first run were, interestingly enough, mainly from Iowa.)
I found that, yes, California does also have a 3-day right to cancel law on door-to-door sales, and moreover the law requires both oral and written notification of this right at the time of sale. I received neither.
I learned that this scam has been going on for decades, essentially unchanged. According to the California Department of Agriculture, Division of Measurement Standards, the practice may violate any or all of the following:
Citation or Criminal Complaint
1. B&P (Business and Professions Code) 12024 Selling in less quantity than represented – misdemeanor
2. B&P 12024.2 Unlawful computation of value - misdemeanor or infraction in certain circumstances
3. B&P 12024.5 Sale of meat, poultry or seafood other than by weight – misdemeanor
4. B&P 12024.55 Door-to-door meat sales, price per pound – misdemeanor
5. B&P 12611 Unlawful Acts: Selling, etc., commodity in non-conforming container or with non-conforming label – misdemeanor
Criminal Complaint (Citation under certain circumstances)
1. PC (Penal Code) 484 (a) Money obtained by fraudulent representation - petty theft
2. PC 487.1 Value exceeds $400.00 - grand theft
3. B&P 17500 False and misleading advertising
1. B&P 17500 False and misleading advertising
2. CC (Civil Code) 17200 Unlawful business practice
3. CC 1689.5 Three-Day Notice to cancel
So what to do? Simply proceed with cancelling my order, or try the meat?
I decided to give Jason every benefit of the doubt. (Why I felt compelled to this degree of generosity for a total stranger is a mystery for another day.) I chose what should have been the best piece: a bacon-wrapped fillet mignon. I cooked it according to the directions. Finally, the moment of truth. . . . And the meat was, in a word, horrid. You know that really cheap stew meat, the stuff where the longer you chew it, the tougher it gets? The "fillet" was just like that, and it tasted weird. I'm not even sure it was beef.
Disgusted, I went to bed, vowing to call Jason back first thing in the morning.
When I awoke, I realized that I'd fallen right into Jason's trap: by trying the meat, I'd sullied the order. Jason would say now that the order is incomplete, it doesn't qualify for a refund.
I spent much of the morning considering my options. I certainly didn't want to talk with Jason again. Then I realized that I didn't have to. In fact, I needed to cancel the order in writing, which is exactly what I did. That afternoon, I sent the following email:
Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 1:25 PM
Subject: NOTICE OF CANCELLATION
On Friday, 18 Feb. 2011, two representatives from your company came to my home and sold me 2 cases of steak and 1 case of seafood. After doing some research, I reversed my decision to purchase these products and so contacted your office that afternoon. I spoke with Jason Russell, who discouraged me from cancelling the order.
After further research, I learned that per California Civil Code sections 1689.7, 1689.10 and 1689.11, I have a right to cancel the order. In fact, your representatives were legally required to inform me of this fact both orally and in writing and to provide me with a copy of "Notice of Cancellation" (C.C. § 1689.7(c)). Because they did not, my rights of cancellation extend beyond the three days regularly provided by law; however, I am still submitting my notice within that timeframe (3 days excluding Sundays and holidays).
According to C.C. § 1689.7(c), my payment of $684.38 must be returned within 10 days following receipt of this notice. I will make available at my residence the goods purchased, and if they are not picked up within 20 days, I may retain or dispose of the goods without any further obligation per California law.
A copy of this email will be sent separately via certified mail.
I hereby cancel this transaction.
Jason soon replied:
From: "Farm Fresh Foods, Inc. Information" <email@example.com>
Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 2:54 PM
Subject: Re: NOTICE OF CANCELLATION
After our conversation the same day as your purchase, I was under the impression that I had satisfied your concerns and that it was your choice to keep the product. I am very curious why now you have decided again to cancel your purchase, what is the reasoning behind it? I did, during our conversation, notify you of the 3 day buyer right to cancel verbally, and I also notified you that it is in writing on the back of your receipt. Also, so you are aware, a 3 day buyer right to cancel only applies if all of the product is accounted for, unopened and unused. So, if you have consumed any portion of the product we will have to negotiate a different resolution. Please let me know of your intentions and the condition of the product.
Farm Fresh Foods
Exactly what I'd expected. I hate lying, but this situation certainly seemed to warrant a fib about "consuming any portion of the product." I shot back,
To: Farm Fresh Foods, Inc. Information
Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 4:55 PM
Subject: Re: NOTICE OF CANCELLATION
The product is as delivered.
I do not recall you notifying me of the 3 day right to cancel. I found that information from my own research. Nor did I receive a receipt with the notice. The only receipt I received is the credit card slip copy.
Please note Part C of V. of C.C. § 1689.7: "The buyer may cancel the contract or offer without giving any reason until midnight of the third business day after the day on which the buyer signed the document. 'Business day' means any calendar day except Sundays and specified holidays."
I have satisfied my end of the legal requirements; now you must satisfy yours. I am done discussing the matter.
Later, a very dejected Jason called me. He barely sounded like the same person. The old Jason was jovial, robust, inspired confidence. This new Jason was flatly soft-spoken, grief-stricken almost--obviously the boss wasn't happy. We set up a time for an employee to come out and pick up the meat (which was never counted but unceremoniously tossed into the back of a truck), and eventually I received my refund (though of course not within ten days).
Over six months later, I'm still appalled that human beings can be this deceitful--and do it so well! I'm still mortified that I could be so completely suckered, but I've gotten over the initial post-traumatic urge to suddenly become suspicious of everyone and everything. And I still haven't filed a formal complaint with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Division of Measurement Standards. Maybe it's because I feel guilty about that little lie.
But there's also this: I'm grateful because confronting this fraud led me to connect with the larger Jamul community in a way I hadn't before. The moment I realized I'd been scammed, I contacted Kim Hamilton, who, I knew, published the local Deerhorn Valley Antler and ran the Antler Alerts that subscribers can receive via email. No matter how embarrassed I was, I did not want what happened to me to be repeated in this neighborhood. Kim responded swiftly by sending out an Antler Alert and posting on the web page a warning about MEAT DELIVERY SCAM. (You can read the alert--and some interesting comments it generated--here: http://deerhornvalley.blogspot.com/2011/02/beware-of-meat-delivery-scam.html.)
We've been friends ever since, and my Tuesday visits with Kim and her husband Rob are a highlight of my week. I'm now a member of the Deerhorn Valley Community Association and write on occasion for The Antler. I'm not sure any of this would have come to pass were it not for Jason and the other crooks at Farm Fresh. So I really have to say, thanks, guys! And have a nice day.
Post-script: At 12:45, Saturday, 24 May 2014, as I was tending plants outside, a sleek white truck once again pulled up to my house. I immediately spotted the cooler in the back. The smiling man who jumped out of the truck announced himself as being from Farm Fresh Foods and launched into the usual routine about the wonderful deal he was about to offer me on my lucky day. As I shook my head, he said, “Yeah, I know. Crazy, right?” I said, “No. Illegal.” After some b.s. banter back and forth, he and his buddy finally left with a closing shot of “You’re crazy, lady. Go back to bed!” I laughed. And then I posted this.