It was bad news when Angela Larson answered her phone at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning in June.
Her alarm monitoring company was on the line. They told her there was a break-in at Swish, her vintage clothing store on Edmonton’s 124th Street.
When Larson arrived at her business, shattered glass crunched beneath her feet. Her front window and display cabinets were destroyed. Whoever did it made off with fistfuls of jewelry from the broken cases.
To make things worse, her Fluent Home alarm panel indicated the break-in happened just before 5 a.m., more than two hours before the monitoring company — a separate business — called her to report it.
“They should have called me immediately,” Larson said. “I could have had five or six people going in there, robbing me. The store was completely wide open from the front.”
Larson tried to contact Fluent Home with her concerns, beginning a months-long ordeal with no resolution so far.
It’s a pattern for the home security company, which does business in Canada and the United States, according to its website.
Fluent Home has a track record of hard-to-reach customer service agents and customers’ inability to cancel contracts, according to multiple past and present customers interviewed by CBC.
Customers have also complained about having their contracts renewed without approval. That has caught the attention of investigators with Service Alberta, the provincial government ministry responsible for consumer protection.
40 phone calls
Since the break-in at her store on June 29, Larson said she has made 40 phone calls to Fluent Home and its third-party monitoring company. She said she has been on hold for an hour or more at a time, only to be transferred or disconnected or told to wait for a call that never comes.
“I’m 58 years old. I have never in my entire life had such a runaround,” Larson said. “It’s farcical.”
Larson took the alarm system out of her shop after the break-in. She’s still paying $42 a month to Fluent Home for a service she no longer uses.
“They are able to keep people’s money, but not actually monitor,” Larson said.
Company not talking
CBC Edmonton contacted Fluent Home multiple times. Emails, phone calls and social media messages were not returned.
Fluent Home is run by former Edmontonian Graham Wood, who now lists his home as Draper, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The Edmonton address listed for Fluent Home on its Facebook page is now a church on Calgary Trail.
Cyndi Eldridge, who runs a dog-boarding business near Cayley, Alta., 80 kilometres south of Calgary, is an unhappy Fluent Home customer.
In 2015, Eldridge purchased a Fluent Home system from a door-to-door salesperson on a five-year contract. Her father, who lives on the property, also signed on.
Eldridge said she had problems with the equipment from the first month. False alarms called the local volunteer fire department multiple times. Eldridge said the company could not turn off the false alarms and refused to cancel the service because she had a contract.
“It’s horrible, horrible service,” said Eldridge. “At one point, I was an hour and 18 minutes on hold.”
Eldridge said seven years of problems came to a head last month, when the alarm went off and a team of volunteer firefighters, including a pump truck, responded.
Firefighters ripped the unit out of the wall so it would finally turn off.
“I’ve tried to cancel it,” Eldridge said of her contract. “I’ve sent [Fluent Home] written notice and they are still trying to take money out of my account.”
She said Fluent Home automatically switched her to a month-to-month contract, without her permission, at the end of her original contract.
Finally, she contacted her bank for a stop-payment order.
Contracts must be in writing: Service Alberta
Service Alberta has investigated allegations that Fluent Home breached the Consumer Protection Act.
Investigators found evidence that the company automatically renewed a customer’s contract for three years after she informed the company she wanted to stop the service.
The province’s director of fair trading issued an order to Fluent Home on Dec. 5, 2022, directing the company to immediately ensure all direct sales contracts are in writing.
The Canadian Security Association, a national industry group, said Fluent Home is no longer a member.
Patrick Straw, the association’s executive director, said in an email to CBC that “a complete inability for the customer to get any response from the company is unacceptable in any industry.”
Brittney Chabot told CBC that Fluent Home refused to cancel her contract in 2021 when her military family was posted from Dundurn, Sask., to Saguenay, Que., and couldn’t take the alarm system with them.
In that case, Chabot said she called the company repeatedly over four months. Fluent Home only cancelled the contract after she took her story to local media, she said.
“It was really stressful,” said Chabot. “Having to worry about whether I’m going to be stuck with a $4,000 bill on my credit report.”
At Swish, Larson installed security shutters over her glass front window. She chose a new alarm company, a local one with positive reviews.
Larson still hopes Fluent Home will cancel the remainder of her contract without penalty.
“It’s all the time and effort that I’ve already put into it that makes it extra, extra frustrating,” she said.
Edmonton police say they have not arrested anyone in connection with the Swish break-in.