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Beware of air conditioning scams


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 10, 2000

In mid-April I received a phone call from an air conditioning company telling me it would be in my area and that it would do a routine air conditioning inspection and change my filter for only $29.95. Since this sounded okay to me, I made an appointment to have this done. I was stupid enough -- yes, stupid! -- to not check this company out.

A week later a worker by the name of Pete came to do the work. After looking at the air conditioner, he asked me to come out to see how much mildew had accumulated on my unit, which is only 5 years old and was maintained every year, since I had a contract with the company that had installed it.

Pete said he would acid-wash the coils. Later he told me he would put in a special ultraviolet box to give me pure air in the house because all I was getting was polluted air.

I told him I had lived in pollution for the last 70 years or so, and it should not hurt me for the few years I have left, but he put in this box anyway and then came and told me it would cost $1,479 and that, if I needed a new unit, it would cost $3,500. Not letting this quote of $1,479 sink in, I again stupidly agreed and used my credit card to pay for it.

Two days later I called another air conditioning company and was told that $1,479 was entirely out of line for such a job and that I should have the first company remove the UV box. When I called the first company, I was talked into keeping the UV box and accepting a refund of $479.

My neighbor had her air conditioning done in the same way, and the worker asked me not to compare prices with her. I found out later that he told her the same thing, to not compare or discuss this situation with me.

Is this a scam? You bet! Please tell your readers to beware of those telemarketing calls. I know I will hang up on them from now on whether it sounds like a good deal or not.

I thought I went to school a long time ago, but it took something like this situation to teach me, and I found out I still had more to learn. Mary Jane Madia

Response: Thanks for helping to get the word out. You fell prey to a common form of telemarketing fraud, and, unfortunately, as you realize, there is nothing that can be done after the fact.

Companies like the one you dealt with are still hard at work in our area, according to the Pinellas County TRIAD, a cooperative effort among law enforcement agencies, social services and seniors that focuses on financial crimes against the elderly. Volunteers on its phone watch program report on the types of telemarketing calls they receive, and, at present, air conditioning tops the list. In a flier it is planning to distribute in target areas, TRIAD outlines how many of them operate.

Some air conditioning companies will offer to clean your air conditioner as a way of getting in your door. As they check your AC, dishonest repair people allow coolant to escape so that your unit loses its efficiency and does not cool properly, leading you to think that it is, indeed, broken.

You may be pressured to purchase a new unit because your old one is "worn out" and needs to be replaced.

You will be discouraged from checking with friends or relatives. You will likewise be discouraged from getting other estimates.

The repair person will often "happen" to have a new unit available on his truck or one in the area that he can install today.

The final sales tactic is the offer of a substantial discount if you buy a new unit now.

Don't! In fact, don't let them in your home to begin with.

TRIAD'S flier offers these tips to avoid being scammed:

Always check the complaint history with your county's consumer protection agency. (In counties without a consumer protection agency, Action recommends calling those of counties that do, since many of these outfits travel from county to county; Pinellas: (727) 464-6200; Hillsborough: (813) 272-6750; Pasco: (727) 847-8110.

Take your time and never allow yourself to be rushed into making a financial commitment.

Always get a written estimate that tells you what is wrong with your air conditioning unit, what the repair or replacement cost will be along with the make, model and serial number in the latter case and the printed and signed name of the repair person.

If the estimate is for more than $500, always get a second estimate from a reputable company.

For information on TRIAD or to volunteer for its programs, call (727) 464-6760.

* * *

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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