It happens all the time. A knock on the door followed by a pitch
from a young person who, for one good cause or another, is selling
But before getting out the checkbook, consider this: You may be
looking into the eyes of a modern-day indentured servant.
Oftentimes, kids who hawk magazines door-to-door are just taking
part in a school project. But some industry watchers say that when
young adults join traveling sales crews, they are sometimes cut off
from family, forced to work long days without having control of
earnings, and subjected to emotional or physical abuse. Touted as
adventurous employment with sales of about $1 billion a year, it's
exploitation industry happening right under Americans' noses,
These sales operations have come under renewed scrutiny since a
March 25 van crash that killed seven youths and injured five others
near Janesville, Wis.
That group appears to fit the profile of traveling sales crews,
which tend to recruit and travel in a wide range of states and have
drivers with longstanding criminal or traffic offenses, says
Beyer, general counsel of the National Child Labor Committee in New
Indeed, the college-age driver in the Wisconsin crash already had
so many driving violations that his license wasn't valid in
But what was unusual, says Ms. Beyer, is that the accident
included four minors - one of whom was killed. That brought the US
Department of Labor and the FBI into an investigation that otherwise
would involve only state and local agencies.
The lure of money
The desire to get rich quick may be part of the problem. Since
the 1960s, there's been a shift toward a sense of entitlement to a
rich, exciting lifestyle, says Robert Fitzpatrick, co-author of a
book on multilevel marketing and pyramid schemes. People from every
background flock to seminars where they are told they can start
making $10,000 right away if they just have the right attitude.
Despite today's prosperity, many people feel insecure and are
"pretty open to a scheme that says, 'I'll deliver you,' " Mr.
Many groups promise fantasy-size profits and instead end up
impoverishing people, experts say. They've also been criticized for
imposing cult-like control over people's thoughts and behavior.
When Earlene Williams tracked down her 18-year-old son after he
joined a traveling crew, he agreed to go home only if she would
promise to help the other kids involved. …