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'I think it’s a scam': Providence's security alarm program has customers seething

PROVIDENCE — The city’s security alarm registration program — established to cut down on a growing number of false alarms — is getting a makeover after some homeowners and businesses thought the company hired to manage it was operating a scam.

That resulted in some alarm owners failing to respond to renewal notices, then facing fines that are 10 times the amount of the annual registration fee. For the last five years, the city has used a private company that gets a 19% cut of the fees and fines it collects.

 

 “It was a mess,” Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré told The Hummel Report. “We shouldn’t be sending out notices that are confusing. The company was sending notices that were less than professional-looking, and people didn’t think it was really a city-sponsored vendor either looking to collect fees, fines or a failure to renew.”

 

Part of the problem: the national company that won the bid to manage the program calls itself CryWolf and uses a Boston post office box mailing address. When asked for comment, CryWolf referred all questions to the city’s public safety department.

 

“It’s taken me some considerable time to understand why people are so confused, and internally the person that oversees this, I’ve had several meetings with them about cleaning this up,” Paré said.

 

How the fees and fines work

More than 2,000 homeowners and businesses pay a $10 annual fee to have their alarm systems registered with the Providence Police Department. The city set up the program years ago after false alarms became increasingly frequent, tying up police resources. It revised the ordinance, which sets the fines, in 2016.

 

At the same time, it moved from handling the program internally to putting out a request for outside companies to bid on administering the registrations and fines. Public Safety Corporation of Maryland, which goes by CryWolf publicly, won the bid for a contract that runs through December 2022. 

 

When an alarm goes off, the security firm that installed it calls the Police Department, which sends officers to the residential or commercial address it has on file. The city does not charge for up to two false alarms in a 12-month period, but owners face a $100 fine on the third, $200 on the fourth and $400 on the fifth. Six or more annually cost $500 each.

And failure to register or renew carries a $100 fine — with no warning that the account may be delinquent.

 

'It sounds like they’re sitting in the Ukraine accessing your money'

“It doesn’t surprise me that some people thought this was a scam, when you have a company that calls itself CryWolf,” said Dr. Robert Patterson, a vascular surgeon who owns Providence Surgical Care Group on Silver Spring Street. “It sounds like they’re sitting in the Ukraine accessing your money.”

 

Patterson said his company had paid the annual registration every year on time, and he takes no issue with the $10 fee. Patterson said that, in April, his office manager either missed — or didn’t receive — the $10 annual notice. The city says it was emailed to Providence Surgical Care on April 7 at 9:01 a.m. with the address on file.

 

“We missed [the registration deadline], and 30 days later we got a bill not only for the $10 fee, but a $100 late charge,” Patterson said. “And that, to me, is just egregious. Instead of the city saying: you’re overdue, or something reasonable like we’re going to tack on a 5% fine, it’s $100 for a 30-day delinquency where we didn’t even get a follow-up. I think it’s a scam.”

 

The city provided records showing that it took in nearly $32,000 in renewal fees last year, and collected $20,000 for failure to register or renew. The city also collected more than $27,000 in false-alarm fines. The contract the city signed calls for CryWolf to keep 19% of collected revenues.

 

“This company does this across the country,” the commissioner said. “I would have expected better and thought it was a no-brainer.”

 

Is there a way to avoid the late-registration fine?

Paré said the registration program itself has been a success, as the city knows all the active alarms in the city and can associate a name and telephone number to a call. “That way, if we go to your alarm and it’s a false alarm repeatedly, then you’ll start being hit with a fine.”

 

The commissioner said anyone who misses the registration deadline can avoid paying the $100 fine by going to an online “Alarm School,” adding that the city’s end goal is registration, not revenue.

 

“There’s a waiver,” he said. “Say you just didn’t know you had to register. You can take a 10-minute online course, ways to prevent false alarms. Then the $100 is waived.”

 

The 1,500-word tutorial begins: "It's easy! It's informative!"

You'll learn:

  • Why false alarms are a problem

  • How your alarm system works

  • How to prevent false alarms

 

It also outlines how alarm systems work, including the control panel, keypad and motion detectors, then explains that the city has to dispatch two patrol cars every time an alarm sounds.

 

The tutorial is followed by a 15-question test that includes multiple choice and true-false questions. No. 3 asks, “Which of these can cause a motion detector to go off: Animals, people, balloons, ceiling fans, none of the above, all of the above?”

 

Respondents have to correctly answer 11 questions to pass.

 

Patterson acknowledges that he didn’t take the tutorial and test, saying it was a waste of his time. “We were offered the opportunity to [learn] … about false alarms and safety. I mean, give me a break. That’s insulting.” He unsuccessfully appealed the fine, with CryWolf noting on the invoice that he hadn’t completed the alarm course.

 

Patterson said he decided to pay the fee and the fine. “It’s obvious that they were going to continue to dump fees and penalties, and that we weren’t going to win that battle.”

 

Adding city's logo to correspondence

Paré said the city has directed CryWolf to start sending letters with the city’s logo and his name at the top indicating that they’re coming from the Providence Alarm Management Program.

 

“We need to streamline the notices and make sure it’s prominent that it’s the City of Providence and Police Department on the letterhead, so they’ll call either the Police Department or a contact number to make sure this wasn’t a scam.

 

“I think it just got sloppy, for whatever reason,” he added. “Some of it is on us. We let it get that way. We take ownership on our end.”

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.