Every now and then, we write about some outright scams, or at least shady or confusing business practices we’ve run across and want to make others aware of. (See here, here, here, and here for some past stories.) Last year, the scams of the moment seemed to focus on COVID-19-related misinformation and trickery, but this summer we’ve been running into a much wider variety, many related to the field of home repairs. This might be unique to us at the moment, but home services is a definitely a classic field for overly opportunistic operators and downright dishonesty, so we thought we’d pass along some examples, with tips on how to recognize and avoid them.
High-Pressure Sales Techniques & Needless Up-Selling
We recently had a tankless water heater go out at our rental duplex. Although I know the plumbers I use and trust for most other jobs do not specialize in tankless heaters, I called them first, just to ask. As I expected, they were were very honest in saying they don’t do repairs on this particular brand of tankless heater, but they did say they could replace it with another brand, and gave me a ballpark cost for replacement. I still wanted to explore repair options first, though, so I made a few more calls and did some online searching, and finally found a nearby plumbing company whose website said it was officially certified to repair our brand of heater.
I called the company, booked an appointment, and was assured several times that they always call 30 minutes before the plumbers’ actual arrival during the possible service-hours window. So my first hint that something was amiss was on the appointed morning, when I never did hear from the plumbers that they were on their way, but instead got a call from my tenants saying the plumbers were already there and working. And by the time I got there, I found they had already disassembled not just the broken water heater, but (without asking or being given permission) the one for the other unit in the building, too, which was working fine.
At this point, the plumbers told me that not only was the broken heater damaged beyond repair and needed replacing, but that the working one was also about to fail at any moment, and needed immediate replacement as well. (So twice the originally requested work and twice the expected expenditure.)
I asked them what the replacement(s) would cost, and they said they would go back out to their van and write up an estimate. A few minutes later, the lead plumber came back and asked if we might be interested in replacing both individual heaters with a single much larger heater that could serve both apartments, which might be a bit cheaper than doing both individual heaters. I knew I was only going to replace one heater, but told him he could include the larger heater option in his estimate, so I could see the comparative cost.
The guy went back out to his van, and came back a few minutes later, saying he just talked to his manager and it turned out they were having a special one-day promotion, and if I authorized the work immediately, they could complete it that day at a special discounted price. Of course, on top of the other red flags already flying, this technique is right out of the sleazy-used-car-salesman playbook, so I was already fully prepared to turn down whatever they handed me…a conviction that was only strengthened when I further pressed him for an actual price, which he hadn’t yet provided, and he handed me a number that was more than five times the ballpark estimate for one heater given to me by my regular plumbers and other people I’d talked to who had recently installed similar heaters. I told the plumbers that was way more than I was going to pay, and when they said they could try talking to their manager again, I firmly told them we were done. In the end, I called another tankless heater specialist recommended by a friend, and got a quick, same-day replacement at a fair price, firmly within the ballpark I was prepared to pay.
Lesson learned: Before booking any kind of service or repair, ask friends and trusted professionals for ballpark costs, and don’t be afraid to say no to anyone whose estimate comes in significantly higher than those ballparks and/or who tries to up-sell you with elevated levels of services, or additional items, or work you don’t need.
Lack of Licensing and Track Record in the Business Being Advertised
We’ve all seen neighborhoods blanketed with fliers or business cards for various kinds of home-related services. Not too long ago, someone went up and down my block leaving cards for a specific tree trimmer/landscaper under the windshield wiper of every car on the block. I always toss such things immediately, and I do have several reputable, knowledgeable and trusted tree trimmers on file, but this time (perhaps my Spidey-sense triggered by the recent plumbing experience above, and perhaps because this card was particularly detailed, with a long list of services offered, generous hours, and an assurance of “all work guaranteed”) I decided to look up this particular person, just to see what I could learn about them online.
Interestingly, I found no online references to this person as a tree trimmer or landscaper (which didn’t really surprise me, since there was no license number listed on the card, which legitimate tree services almost always provide). But I did find references to the same person as a concrete curbing contractor in Palmdale, and he was also mentioned in an OC Register story called “State Stings 14 Phony Contractors in Costa Mesa,” which called him out for “Concrete/contracting without a license, illegal advertising, no Costa Mesa business license.” Pretty much all I needed to know.
Lesson learned: Do at least a cursory online search for any business advertising via low-budget alternative methods in your neighborhood. Also, always check for “licensed, bonded and insured” statements, and then follow up and check on any license numbers listed, to make sure they’re both real and current.
Although this hasn’t happened to me yet, I did see a recent warning from a local resident on the NextDoor social media platform, complaining that the writer has long used a service company with a name formatted as “XXXX YYYY.” She reported that recently, however, she tried to call the company again, and used a phone number that popped up in a quick web search. But it quickly became obvious that this was not the company she had used before, and was actually a look-alike called “XXXX-YYYY Company” (notice the addition of the hyphen).
Lesson learned: Many companies have similar names, whether by coincidence or more nefarious design intended to confuse customers of the company that was first to use the name. If you’re looking for a familiar service provider, but their website looks different, or their address or phone number doesn’t seem quite right, make sure it’s actually the same company – by looking at their website, Yelp reviews, or other sources – before calling or engaging them.
This one also hasn’t happened to me recently, but Buzz co-publisher Patty Lombard reports that a friend of hers recently needed to change their postal address, so did a quick web search, clicked on a link for address change services…and wound up paying $40 for the address change through a for-profit company — a service that the not-for-profit US Postal Service offers for just $1.05.
Lesson learned: If you need a specialized service usually provided by the government or a government-associated organization for little to no cost, make sure you actually use that government or government-associated organization to provide the service. Many for-profit companies have sprung up to “facilitate” these kinds of services and transactions, and even sometimes have websites with similar colors or other branding elements, but all they really do is mark up the price for services you can get for free or close to free from the correct governmental agency. And the for-profit services or websites are not necessarily easier or better in any way, just more expensive. Which goes not only for postal services, but things like government-sponsored home service rebates or discount programs as well.
Ads at the Top of Online Search Results
This one is related to the item above. One reason many people wind up using for-profit companies to perform simple services provided at low or no cost by governmental or other non-profit agencies is that those for-profit entities often pay for ads on common search engines, which gives them prominent placement at the top of online search results. The more reputable search engines, like Google, do label these paid search results as ads, but for the individual searcher in a hurry, or not reading closely, it can be easy to click on one of the paid advertising links instead of scrolling down further and reading more carefully through the search results to find the actual not-for-profit or other direct provider of the service you need. (And, yes, that’s how Patty’s acquaintance wound up over-paying for a postal address change.)
Lesson learned: it’s often a good idea to intentionally bypass all the paid “ad” results at the top of any online search results, and take the time to read through the search engine’s more organic result list below the ad stack.
Companies You’ve Never Heard of Before with a Sudden Flood of Positive Reviews on Local Social Media
Every now and then, if you follow local social media, you may notice a sudden flood of recommendations for a service provider, either an individual such as a handyman or a business such as a contracting/construction company, that you haven’t heard of before, but who or which seems suddenly popular with neighbors and may be offering just the kind of service you need at the moment.
In this case, however, the phrase “buyer beware” is especially appropriate, because those sudden floods of recommendations are sometimes coordinated by the provider or company itself, may not be from real users, and may be temporarily pushing a company that isn’t really local and may disappear as quickly as they arrived in the social media feed. So if you’re interested in using someone who has recently been widely publicized or recommended on social media, take time to do the following:
- Check the dates on both the service provider’s posts and those of any recommendations, and confirm that they span months or years…and weren’t all made within a couple of days or weeks.
- Click on the names of people recommending the provider, to see if they have an established, legitimate history of posts on various topics in the online forum.
- Look through the reviews for someone who may have used the service provider for an issue similar to yours, and (after verifying their legitimacy, as recommended above), send them a private message asking for confirmation of and more information about their recommendation.
Lesson learned: Legitimate service providers with good track records stick around, and don’t just appear out of nowhere, get trumpeted loudly and briefly, and disappear. Verify the history of both a company and its reviewers/recommendations before being lured by a sudden flurry of positive reviews.
Misleading Link Targets
Finally, this one isn’t specifically about home-oriented product or service advertising…but it easily could be, and the same techniques and principles apply.
Everyone who uses social media probably has stories about targeted ads in their feeds, whether for weird products, or oddly or too-accurately targeted products. But I found one recent social media ad experience particularly instructive on the theme of scams and frauds. Recently, my own Facebook feed was inundated with ads for shoes from a couple of major shoe brands, one of which I particularly like. But after a while, I noticed that the same rather eye-catching pair of shoes was showing up in ads for both shoe brands…which seemed unlikely. And then I noticed that despite the ads all being branded and looking like they were coming from one of the two major brands, none of the ad URLs were actually pointing to those brands’ own websites or dealers. So I went directly to the two companies’ own websites, and searched for the particular shoe being advertised, and didn’t find it on either company’s site.
Also, while most of this happened a couple of weeks ago, yesterday the ads started showing up again. But this time, instead of pointing to a no-recognizable-name website, I noticed that today at least one of the ads for the supposed XXXX brand shoe is now pointing to a site listed as XXXX-UK.com, which looks like a British version of the brand site. So I clicked to see where it would take me. And sure enough, the website appears fully branded as an XXXX brand website, with the familiar logo, trademark, and a selection of shoes I could believe the brand selling. But I also see far fewer products there than on the usual XXXX brand site, and when I do a Google search for the real UK version of the brand’s site, the real URL turns out to be XXXX.co.uk Also, all prices on the “XXX-UK” site are listed in dollars, not pounds, and if you zoom in on a couple of photos where brand tags are visible on some of the shoes, the tags say things like “Fashion,” not “XXXX.” Definite signs of both product and website fakery.
Lesson learned: When shopping for anything online (products or services), and especially when clicking on online ad links, make sure links to branded items actually go to the brands’ actual websites or to sites actually authorized to sell the products, and not fake products being marketed through illegitimate websites illegally appropriating famous brand names. To find the real site for a brand you’re interested in, type that brand name into a search engine, and then check the site for the specific item or service you’re seeking, to confirm that it does actually belong to the real company.
So that’s probably a good list for now, but we’ll be back soon with another of these columns focusing specifically on real estate scams…which seem to abound lately.
Excellent information and a great help to the community.