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why you shouldn't choose ADT for home security

2020-11-26

I recently had the misfortune of selecting ADT to provide security for my home. The result was such a long concatenation of incompetence and shirked responsibility that I have to document it publicly.

Shady partners

It all started when I received an ad in the mail for about $500 or so off the installation of an ADT security system. Due to neighborhood break-ins, gunshots at night, and the recent presence of a gun-wielding man in my back yard at 2AM – things that started happening during and after our friendly George Floyd riots – I had in the back of my mind a desire to get some kind of security system, and the deal appeared to be a good one, so I called them up. The woman who answered the phone seemed nice, but didn't have much information. I wanted to know what it would cost to add a camera system to their advertised package. She said she'd have to place me on hold.

A different person picked up and immediately said derisively "So, you're tryin' to get some free stuff, huh? Well, as the manager I have the authority to do that for you but..." and I interrupted to say that I didn't ask for any free stuff, and I only wanted to know the total cost of the system if I added four cameras. He continued, "Well, I could get you those discounts that you want, but first you..." and I interrupted again to say that I'm not asking for any special treatment. I just want to know the cost. He rattled off some numbers like "well, uhh, cameras are maybe $200 or $300 each, and then you need the recorder, plus installation, and since I'm the manager I can give you one camera for free, since you're tryin' to get a discount..." And I said "okay, what's the overall price?" and he shot back "I just told you!! Cameras are like $300 each!" I tried to clarify that I wanted to know the total price I'd have to pay, but he said "Before I go into that, I need to get some information from you," and he asked me my name, home address, and then wanted to run a credit check. Since I didn't really want to unfreeze my credit just to find out a price, I asked why, and he said that they don't want to waste their time on people who can't pay. At that point I was starting to have second thoughts about this company. Nonetheless I went through the credit check and got the price, which sounded reasonable.

So then I asked about scheduling a consulation to nail down the details of the system – how many sensors and cameras I'd need to cover the home, etc. – and he said that before they'd send anyone out to talk to me he needs my credit card number. Why? "'Cuz we still don't know if you can afford it." But what would they do with my credit card number? They'd charge the installation fee. But I hadn't agreed to an installation yet. Well, if I end up not wanting an installation then they'll see about getting me a refund. Obviously that's a very strange business practice, making the customer pay for something before he even knows he wants it. What made it even more strange was that according to their special offer, if I agreed to the installation they'd refund the installation fee, and if I didn't agree to the installation they'd also refund the installation fee. In no case would they keep the installation fee. So why charge it in the first place? Oh, right, because they don't trust that I can afford it... Well at that point I was pretty well dissuaded from continuing and said that the whole thing seems strange to me and while I might call them back, I'd have to think about it. And his response was "Well, I tried to help you. Bye!!" and he hung up.

Although their materials were branded with ADT, that wasn't ADT itself, just one of their "authorized premier providers", called "Protect Your Home" (protectyourhome.com). But if their authorized dealers were so obnoxious then I wanted to use a different company. Unfortunately, it seemed like the other companies in my area were either immature or had been bought by ADT. So I called the main ADT number and they said they'd send out one of their "security consultants" (i.e. salesmen).

The initial consultation

The initial consultation went well, and we came up with a good plan. I have no complaints about it per se, but it seems like none of my concerns and requests were actually communicated back to ADT.

First, a slight digression. Did you know that most new cars are remotely hackable? Somebody can set your throttle to 100%, disable your brakes, and kill you remotely from the comfort of his couch. I've been reading occasional articles about it for many years, and I watched it done in a documentary. They said automobile manufacturers are working hard to plug the security holes, but nonetheless the proportion of cars that are remotely hackable goes up each year rather than down. And that amazed me, because there's a very simple way to make any car 100% secure against remote hacking: simply don't connect the engine computer (or the anti-lock braking system computer or any other critical component) to a radio! That's it! And it's the same for any computer system. If it's not connected to the Internet, it can't be hacked over the Internet.

So, with that principle in mind, I told ADT on the phone and then said at least three times to the security consultant that I wanted a "dumb" security system that is not connected to the Internet, and I explained that when I say "not connected to the Internet", I mean that there is no website or application, public or otherwise, that somebody can go to to manage my security system. I further clarified that I want a system in which remote reprogramming or disabling of the security system is impossible, because the system is unable to receive control signals from any source that would allow any person to remotely manage or disable it. I was told that's just how it would be. The consultant said something like "The only way anybody will be able to do anything to the system is from the keypad in your house." Great. So with that assurance, I signed the contract.

The interior alarm system installation

The initial installation started out well, until I saw that the technician was programming my alarm system by logging into alarm.com – a public website – with his laptop, proving that what I was told was false. Anyone who can log into the alarm.com backend for my account can remotely disable or reprogram my alarm system. Having worked in and around software security for decades, I do not believe this to be a secure solution. I told the technician that this isn't the kind of system I agreed to have but he said that's the only kind they offer. So I was either lied to or otherwise misled into signing a contract that I would not have signed otherwise. But that wasn't the only problem during the initial installation.

This is a relatively minor complaint, but it goes toward general quality control: their touchscreen keypad is obnoxious. First, it wouldn't connect to my home network because the onscreen keyboard doesn't support typing all the punctuation characters. So I had to change the password on my home network and every device to something that I could input on their touchscreen. If I want to look through the event log, it's practically impossible because it's filled with thousands of noise events with no way to filter, and it takes a second to move from one page to the next. Many features apparently don't work. When you press the icon, it beeps but otherwise nothing happens. And the thin manual is useless, with descriptions like "X: Press to do X." Okay, but what is X and how does it work? No answer.

Finally, the technician refused to demonstrate that the system worked. Although he'd told me earlier that the glass-break detector is very sensitive to precise placement and the presence of obstacles in the home, when I asked him to show that the glass-break detector worked, he said "I don't want to do that. We could spend hours making sure it works on every window, but it's too inconvenient." I said that I didn't expect him to test every window, but he could at least test one window, like the window that's furthest away from the sensor. But he still said "I don't really want to do that... it takes time... just trust me, it works." But did it really? How unprofessional. Later I did my own testing and found that two of the sensors had been programmed incorrectly and didn't work, including the very one he told me to trust him about! So I had to call and wait almost two weeks for another technician to come fix it, all because the first technician was too lazy to do even the most basic test. Let me contrast that with another company.

When I was a kid, we had an alarm system installed. The technicians had a simple mechanical device that slapped a window to make a sound like breaking glass. They tested every window in multiple locations, made adjustments to the sensor, and retested every window again until they were satisfied. That's how a professional company would do it.

I complained about the bait & switch to the security consultant. He never replied. I sent an email to customer support. They never replied either, but eventually a technician contacted me and said that they did have the kind of system I wanted, but that they'd have to completely tear the old system out to install a different one. What a pain. Why not just install the correct system – the one I repeatedly asked for – in the first place?

Resetting an event

While we were cooking one day, the monitored smoke alarm went off. I disarmed it, but after that I got automated calls every day saying I need to reset the event from my keypad. Well, I couldn't find any way to do it. The manual was, of course, useless. So I called ADT and sat on hold waiting to find out. The tech support woman who answered said she didn't know. So I sat on hold again and got a different technician who told me that I'm supposed to reboot the keypad. I did that, but the next day I got the same automated message. So I called a third time and finally got a technician who said "Oh, that's not something you can do from your end. The only way to reset it is to call us." So she reset it. But it seems their tech support is very hit and miss.

The exterior camera non-installation

The exterior camera system was scheduled for a different installation date. According to the sales consultant, that's because they use different technicians to do it: their "best guys, with 10 years' of experience". Well, those guys were supposed to arrive between 8 and 8:30AM and I sat there waiting until 10AM. Then I called. I was told to give them another two hours. I did but they never showed up. Nobody bothered to let me know they wouldn't be coming until their time window had ended.

So I called to reschedule, and they told me that they can't reschedule because they don't have anyone available. A day or two later I got a voice message saying to call them so they could reschedule the appointment. I called them and sat on hold and was told that they can't reschedule it. A day or two after that I got another voice message saying to call them and reschedule. So I called and sat on hold and was again told that they can't reschedule it. Then I was told that they could reschedule it. Great.

The exterior camera installation

So the guy showed up and I immediately noticed that he looked too young to have 10 years' of experience. I was also surprised that it was just him, because it's a two-man job. Company policy won't even allow one person to do the installation if they have to go up on a ladder. Since they knew it's a two-story house, they should have known this. The guy also didn't bring a suitable ladder for a two-story house and needed to get one. When he finally was ready to start working, I told him the same thing I told the initial consultant, that I hoped he'd treat my home the same way he'd treat his own and, for example, seal any holes he drilled in my walls, to prevent the passage of mice or insects. He said he would. But there were numerous problems with the installation:

  • Based on what the sales consultant told me, I was supposed to receive four high-resolution cameras with night vision. I was given four low-resolution cameras, which have either 1.3 megapixels (according to one document) or 2 megapixels (according to another) of resolution – either significantly worse than or else no better than the lowest-quality camera currently sold by that manufacturer. Of those, I actually received only three such cameras, because the technicians failed to bring the correct parts. The fourth camera they installed, without asking me or updating the paperwork, is not fully compatible with the recorder, exhibited synchronization problems immediately after installation, and after restarting the recorder ceased providing any video at all. They were also supposed to provide a networking device, but forgot to do so.
  • One of the technicians left two of the cameras sitting in the rain and failed to dry them before installing them. This caused excessive moisture to be trapped in the camera domes, making the images foggy during the day and completely useless at night (due to reflection of IR light off the water droplets trapped in the dome). The other technician told me "I don't know why he did that... He's a brand new guy." So much for them being their best guys with 10 years' of experience. I'm glad he let me know, but he didn't actually fix the problem. Here are some screenshots from the useless cameras: camera 1 and camera 2.
  • Two of the cameras were installed in unsatisfactory locations, and not where I had chosen during my initial consultation. Of the four cameras, I was consulted on the specific location of only one camera before the work was done. For the others, holes were already drilled in my walls and the cables were routed, stapled, and cut making the cameras impractical to relocate without starting over. One camera was placed facing diagonally across my driveway when I asked for it to be facing down the driveway. It's also next to a hedge that blocks the field of view and reflects enough IR light to prevent night mode from working properly. Another camera was placed too far away from the area I said I wanted it to observe, and furthermore behind a light source that washes out the image.
  • Due to the above, only one of the four cameras works well in night mode (i.e. infrared mode). One works poorly and two don't work at all. Operation at night was a specific concern that I had mentioned to the sales consultant.
  • The workmanship was unsatisfactory. After they left I checked three holes and none of them were sealed, despite me repeatedly asking. Furthermore, they left dozens of pieces of trash both outside and inside my house, pulled some insulation out of my wall and didn't replace it, used supplies from my garage without asking and then left it sitting in the dirt on the side of my house, left an entrance to my attic open, and left several of their tools behind, including a staple gun, a drill bit, bags of screws and drywall anchors, and shoe covers.
  • I was upset by the degree of price-gouging on parts. I was charged $1200 for four cameras. That would be okay for high-end cameras (which I was led to believe I'd be getting), but not for 1.3- or 2-megapixel cameras. I can buy those cameras online – the exact same models – for $30-50 each. For $360 I can buy four 6-megapixel cameras with audio from the same manufacturer. For $860 I can buy four top-of-the-line 8-megapixel cameras with audio, a motorized zoom lens, and advanced firmware features, from the same manufacturer. I understand the concept of a markup, but $1200 for four low-resolution cameras is frankly outrageous. I was also charged $200 for the little brackets used to mount the cameras, and charged for four of them even though only three were installed.
  • After the technician left, I received an email saying that the technician had signed my name "with [my] express permission" on the work order agreement. I gave no such permission, nor was I asked. In fact, I had neither seen nor heard of that document before I received the email. The document has boxes checked saying that I acknowledge receiving things that I did not actually receive, that I agree to pay for them, that I approve of the camera locations, etc. The technician illegally forged my signature.
  • Later I discovered that the type of equipment ADT installed is banned by the US government for use in any government or critical infrastructure facility because of its insecurity. Both were produced by Dahua, whose recorders were discovered to have an undocumented API that allowed any remote user, with no authentication, to gain complete control of the device. Why were they installing such insecure devices? This is laughable for a security company, and another example of why you shouldn't connect your security system to the Internet!

The camera non-replacement

Because one of the cameras was the wrong model and didn't work with the recorder, I called ADT to schedule another appointment for them to replace it with the correct model. Despite that being the only reason for the appointment, when the technician showed up, he still didn't have the right camera! He said he'd go pick it up and come back. Well I sat around all day and never saw or heard from him again. I received no notice or explanation from ADT about his disappearance, either. Oh, but later I did receive an email with a legal agreement on which he had forged my signature "with [my] express permission" (not!). Apparently forgery is their standard operating procedure.

My attempt to cancel the camera service

Due to the problems I listed above, I emailed the security consultant with my complaints. Once again, I received no response. I emailed customer support, and received no response. So I decided to exercise the cancellation clause in the contract for the camera service. Like many companies, ADT makes it easy to sign up but hard to cancel. You have to snail-mail them a form within a very short time frame, providing certain information, etc. Well, I followed the procedure and included a letter describing the reasons why I wanted to cancel, proposing remedies such as a partial payment in recognition that they did do some work of value, and clearly saying, twice, that I wanted to cancel only the camera service and not my alarm system. I expected to hear back from them about my proposed remedies, but never did.

Some time later, I called them about a different issue and the guy who answered gruffly told me that I owe them over four thousand dollars and need to pay them immediately. That was a surprise. Why? He said I canceled my account. I said that I did not cancel my account and he insisted that I did. I explained that I expressly said, twice, that I wanted to cancel only the camera service and not my entire alarm system. He seemed to disbelieve me, charged my credit card for the $4200 without telling me – at least, I received a charge notification shortly thereafter – and told me I'd have to talk to their cancellation team.

So I spent nearly an hour on the phone cleaning up the mess they made while speaking to rather dismissive people. Then I had to call again to talk to the billing department and make sure they reversed the erroneous $4200 charge to my credit card. They said I'd have to wait a week to for things to be fixed. Two and a half weeks later, there's still no refund of the $4200, and I noticed on my statement that they additionally charged me two cancellation fees of about $1200 each and then refunded only one of them. So I called again and they said I'd have to wait 30 days and it'd all be fixed, but after 35 days nothing was fixed. I called again and they said they messed up the refund, but they'll send it again and it'll be applied in 2–3 days. A week later, still nothing. So I called again and was told, again, that the previous person didn't do the refund correctly. They said it'll be just another week. Two weeks later, still no refund. Time for yet another call to ADT... will this finally be the end of my troubles? Somehow I doubt it.

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