It's not that she doesn't like comic strips, but Carol Cook often wants to tear Dagwood Bumstead to shreds.

"They're always showing that awful unsophisticated salesman with the blue suede shoes knocking on the Bumstead door," cringes Cook, a 30-year veteran of in-home sales. "And usually Dagwood throws the rube out on his ear."

But glib, foot-in-the-door salesmen went out with fin-tailed cars, contends the 52-year-old chairwomen of the board of the Direct Selling Association -- whose 130-plus member companies sell everything from underwear to Bibles.

"Our image has greatly improved. We have a strong association with a strict code of ethics. Our members provide quality products, and we offer the same or better guarantee protection than a retail store."

And in the gas- and time-crunched '80s, Cook says, "Direct sales offers convenience, privacy and economy without parking hassles, long check-out lines or busy, underinformed salespeople."

Seventy-five percent of American homes are contacted by direct salespeople each year, with half of those making a purchase. Nearly all of the 4 million salespeople are part timers, 80 percent are women, 15 percent are minorities, 10 percent are disabled and 5 percent are over age 65.

"People come into this business generally to make extra money," says Cook, who worked her way up from door-to-door cosmetics sales to become president of the company and now serves as a vice president of Stanley Home Products.

"Some of us get hooked. You're an independent contractor so you have flexible hours and freedom of being a self-starter. You can make pin money or support a family."

Direct-sales companies operate on three basic plans:

The "party plan " -- Someone serves as hostess and invites friends over to hear sales pitch about anything from food containers to crystal.

The territory system -- Salespeople are assigned to call on homes in a specified location.

Referral and appointment sales -- Usually involves a home-demonstration arranged in advance and doesn't limit salespeople to one geographic area.

Despite industry regulations, Cook admits that some "traveling charlatans" still exist.

"If someone uses high-pressure tactics or a ridiculous line like they're taking a survey, I wouldn't even open the door," she says. The association offers this advice on dealing with direct salespeople:

Ask for identification. An honest salesperson will tell you, up front, their name, the company they represent and the product or service they are offering.

Be skeptical of exaggerated claims. Does the sales presentation appear straightforward and honest or promise miracle cures? Is the contact understandable, making price and credit information clear? Don't hesitate to ask questions.

Get the salesperson's phone number if you make a purchase. Find out if there are guarantees and make sure that you can contact the company or seller if you have a problem.

Ask about your right to cancel a contract. If your purchase is more than $25, federal law requires that the seller allow a minimum cancellation perios of three days without any financial loss. Salespeople are required to inform you of this right.

Contact the Direct Selling Association if your problem isn't resolved to your satisfaction. Write the Code Administrator, Direct Selling Association, 1730 m St. NW, Suite 610, Washington, D.C. 20036, or call 293-5760.