Watchdog Nation called leader in Texas battle to fix a broken property tax system

Watchdog Dave Lieber, columnist for The Dallas Morning News, rolled out a major campaign in 2017 against the Texas property tax system.

The campaign was called “Everybody File a Tax Protest.” Purpose: to gum up the system with legally-allowed protests and show Texans the unfairness and subjectivity that plagues the state’s big tax collection system.

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Early indications are the campaign was a big success. Protests numbers in big counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth region jumped considerably compared to the previous year.

Follow the campaign with these popular Watchdog stories as we prepare for the next step in 2018.

BOTH TWEETS

Why paying your property tax without a protest is a sucker’s game

How to file a Texas property tax protest — and why you must

Here’s what you’re saying about your 2017 property tax protest hearings

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How to soften appraisal sticker shock: Cities, school districts and counties should lower tax rates

Why property taxes are going up when they should be going down

Test your property tax IQ

TOWN HALL Flyer Frisco

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is the leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

Read Watchdog Nation’s “origin” story here.

Everything you need to know about the Equifax data theft and protecting your identity.

“Watchdog, could you do a column on what steps to take to try to protect those affected by the massive Equifax breach? I want to move forward in trying to protect us, but am not sure what all I need to do.” — Cheryl DeJulius, Plano

Right on, Cheryl. Let’s do this.

Dave, how bad is the data theft?

Bad. Bad. Bad. Six out of every 10 American adults are affected. Thieves stole names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers and some driver’s license numbers. Consumerist.com calls it “the identity theft jackpot.” Imagine how quickly any two-bit crook can do damage with that information. They can raid your bank account, file false tax returns with the IRS in your name, open accounts anywhere pretending to be you.

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Equifax handled the crisis correctly, right?

Are you kidding? This is a classic example of an American company screwup. Put aside, for now, the loss of highly personal data, Equifax failed to announce the theft for more than a month. The announcement was without details. The company’s offer for one year of free ID theft protection was insincere and designed for profit. The personal ID numbers assigned by Equifax to complaining customers were easy to crack because they were date and time stamped.

Read the rest of the story with lots of tips at DallasNews.com,  where this story first appeared, here.

Dave-Lieber-watchdog-nation

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is the leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

Read Watchdog Nation’s “origin” story here.

Part 1: Watchdog’s 2017 Legislative Agenda – Insurance, privacy, electricity shopping, property tax reform

I love the Texas Legislature.

You don’t hear those words very often. But ever since I visited for the first time, in 1995, and watched then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock work his magic over everyone, I see the lege for the good it does. Who says that these days?

#txlege — and that’s actually the official hashtag — is a vehicle for change, for improvement. The Watchdog receives several thousand emails and letters each year from Texans who gripe about their biggest problems. It’s easy for me to detect patterns and point out which areas of consumer life need fixing.

What I don’t like is how hard it is to get our points across. The problem is the lobbyists, who swarm like fire ants. They are everywhere, on their phones, standing in the back of hearings, earning their fat salaries — many times more than a legislator makes. They have steakhouse expense accounts and big budgets for campaign donations. As you can imagine, lobbyists are incredibly charming.

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Lobbyists and other interested parties attend committee meetings for bills in Austin. But most people who have opinions on pending matters don’t attend. They’re at work.(Dave Lieber/Staff)

To counter that, I have a Watchdog Nation strategy. It’s old-fashioned people power. You and me. We get in there and dust it up. As I did two years ago, today I reveal the top five Watchdog laws I’d like to see passed in 2017. We even have a logo.

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We’ll follow their progress and show you how to lobby lawmakers to protect your interests.

The plan

This is how we did it together two years ago. Three of our five suggested consumer fixes actually became law. We created a Watchdog Hall of Fame for lawmakers who picked up the baton and crossed the finish line. Let’s do it again.

If you want to get involved in any of these battles, send an email to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

Electricity reform

Battle No. 1: Deceptive electricity shopping must stop.

Who is going to stand up to the marketing deceptions that some electricity companies use to sign up customers? Because of these, many Texans overpay for electricity and don’t even know it.

After I showed how companies used phony 1-cent rates to beat search engines and come out first in search results, the state took action to stop that. But it’s only a start.

Public Utility Commission Chairman Donna Nelson said last year that some electricity companies “always find a way” around the PUC’s best efforts to keep the marketplace honest and transparent.

She said, in words that confirm my reporting over the past decade, “Whatever practice we put in place to try and end the confusion, then they find a way around that.”

I have suggested four points of improvement. I’m proud that The Dallas Morning News editorial board supports these points, as does the leading electricity consumer group Texas ROSE. More important, I have email addresses of several hundred of you who want to help.

The four points of what I’d call the “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2017” include:

1) Compare apples to apples. Force every company to list offered rates, with the distribution charge included. (Many hide that.)
2) Ban deceptive language. Don’t let confusing teaser rates and technical language disguise the real cost of service. Regulate those tricky and often-lying door-to-door salesmen.

3) End minimum-usage deals. Making people pay more if they use less power doesn’t encourage conservation.

4) Warn copycat sites. Demand that companies using “power to choose” language on their websites (that’s the name of the state’s shopping site) announce they are not the state website.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.
Some electricity companies use keywords “power to choose” because that’s also the name of the state-sponsored site.

Property taxes

Battle No. 2: Make the property tax system fair.

I get that #txlege won’t pass an income tax. OK, but our biggest government money grab could at least be set up so it’s based on fairness, rather than whim. Because sale prices are kept secret, tax bills, I believe, are based on guesswork, more than science.

I showed last year how local governments pretend they aren’t raising taxes even if they are. I also showed what an unfair advantage I had in 2016 when I hired the state’s best known tax protest company and shaved my tax bill down. My neighbors didn’t. Sorry for them, but is that fair?

Insurance protection

Battle No. 3: Don’t let insurance companies strip us of our rights to protect our family.
Insurance companies are crying that they need help – even though they’ve been making huge profits. I call it an insurance war against consumers.

We must make sure #txlege doesn’t allow companies to block our right to sue. That’s the battlefield. Sometime this session, their attack bill on our legal rights will emerge. The Watchdog will need your help to call it out and knock it down.

Personal privacy

Battle No. 4: Taking all 10 fingerprints for a driver’s license is unnecessary.

The Watchdog fears that Texas Department of Public Safety will try to expand the one-thumbprint rule into 10 fingerprints required for a driver’s license. Otherwise, how will everyone’s full fingerprints make it to the federal fingerprint archives that homeland security buffs dream about at night?

Fortunately, we have our first bill of the year to support. State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, already a charter member of The Watchdog Hall of Fame, has offered Senate Bill 281, which limits governments from collecting not only fingerprints but blood, skin and hair samples, DNA and body scans. This doesn’t affect police work. The bill bans giving up personal information in exchange for providing a government service, such as a driver’s license.

Watchdog Hall of Fame member and State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, introduced a personal privacy bill for the 2017 session.

Taylor’s “Protect Personal Identifiers Act” has little to do with stopping crime, finding terrorists or border security. This is designed to protect the rest of us law-abiding Texans from 1984-style government.

I see that I’ve run out of room. I saved the most important one for last. In my next column, part two, I’ll show you why we need a license system for roofers and general contractors.

Don’t forget. If you want to get involved, send an email to watchdog@dallasnews.com.

Onward.

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

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Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun website: DaveLieber.org

Part 2: Watchdog: Attention state lawmakers – the case for a roofers/contractors license

The other week, I went to small claims court to watch a DeSoto business owner exact revenge on a roofer who relieved him of a $7,700 deposit but provided no roof. The roofer, Lucas Ray Currier, took the deposit money and disappeared.

This story makes me sick. The victim is Bong Huynh, a Vietnamese-American who worked to buy his first American home. After a hail storm, roofers swarmed his neighborhood. He doesn’t speak English, so after the roofer disappeared, a friend of his contacted me on his behalf. I suggested small claims court to get a judgment.

Bong did that. He arrived with a translator whose English wasn’t much better. Roofer Currier no-showed. Bong won. He may never see the money again. But here’s what matters: Roofer Currier can continue to do business in Texas. Who’s going to stop him?

Want to stop him and the hundreds of other unreliable roofers and general contractors who take advantage of storm victims? I have a plan. Pull up a chair.

Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.(Dave Lieber/Staff)
Bong Huynh is one of many North Texas homeowners who say they were ripped off by disappearing roofers. This photo was taken in small claims court when he won his case.
(Dave Lieber/Staff)

Help me

In my previous Watchdog report, I unveiled four of the five topics on The Watchdog’s 2017 legislative plan. Recapping, they are: reforming retail electricity shopping; protecting insurance customers’ rights; stopping DPS from taking fingerprints and other biometric information from law-abiding Texans; and fixing the unfair state property tax system.

Here’s the fifth and final one: a required license for roofers and general contractors. Not continuing education, and not even enforcement of violators. I am a pragmatist and realize that’s too much to ask of this legislature. All I want is a list kept that we can check before hiring.

If roofer Currier disappears and gets a judgment against him, his name is taken off the list. You, as a consumer, would know to check the license list. If a roofer isn’t on it, you go another way. That’s my dream. (By the way, I tried to contact Currier, but he didn’t respond.)

The plan

To battle obstacles, I’m calling on your help for old-fashioned people power. If you want to get involved as a citizen of Watchdog Nation in any of these battles, send an email to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com. I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Which lawmakers should you write to? Where is a bill stuck? Who are the heroes and villains?

This is how we did it together two years ago when three of five bills we pushed turned into law. I created a Watchdog Hall of Fame to honor legislators that did this great work. This year, we have our own logo.

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Why roofers?

After the Garland-Rowlett-Sunnyvale tornado attack in December 2015, my colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I easily found roofers violating rules and state laws. They didn’t care. Then the letters from frustrated customers began piling up. A sampling:

A woman complains the roofer put in vents upside down so water comes into her house. The roofer won’t help.

Another woman tells me her contractor took a down payment, completed one-third of the work, shut down his cell phone and was never heard from again.

A man shows me evidence of 12 leaks in his roof since it was installed in 2014.

Another man lays out the story of how his roofer also refuses to honor the warranty and repair shoddy work.

Yet another man sends me proof of an incomplete roof job. He says he lost $10,000 to a disappearing roofer.

A married couple tells me that after a hailstorm they gave $5,000 for roof and window repairs. “They no longer answer their phone and have not contacted us in two months.”

A man lost $5,000. “They made up excuse after excuse about why they couldn’t deliver my roofing materials.”

Call center con men

How do these roofing outlaws get jobs? Through word of mouth, through door knocking and the latest annoyance, through call centers that violate Do Not Call lists.

I get these calls, too. They are liars. They tell me they represent a roofing company in the city in which I live. No such company exists. They tell me they are doing my neighbor’s roofs. They’re not. I previously showed how they use fake Caller ID numbers to make it appear they’re local, when they’re not.

Neighbors are tougher

All our surrounding states require licensing or registration for workers who do major work on homes and businesses. Not Texas.

The Watchdog is asking for a simple list, one that we can check before we go out and spend thousands of dollars in one of the most crooked businesses in the great state of Texas.

Enough is enough.

Join me. Write to me at watchdog@dallasnews.com

Read Part One and learn about The Watchdog’s other issues for the 2017 Legislature.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Check out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to you.

What Texans are telling The Watchdog

“Your goal is a lofty one and may have challenges in this conservative state. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a good try.” — Robert Curry

“During the time I was a general contractor, there were a number of companies that used the title ‘general contractor’ who were operating out of their pickup trucks, and most had no insurance.” — Bob Travis

“I am an insurance fraud investigator. When a catastrophic event happens, I hear lots of stories about the dishonesty of what I call migrant roofers/contractors.” — Chris Javier

“We should license them like we do plumbers and electrical contractors. It is not a perfect solution, but it is a step in a good direction.” — Bill Lynch

“Unfortunately, those phony contractors flood any market, rarely have an office even in their home state, have no insurance, no employees and no ethics.” — Nelson R. Braddy Jr.

It is absolutely crazy that homeowners have virtually no legal protection against unscrupulous roofers even though the roofers can get a lien placed against the property involved if the homeowner refuses to pay for poor work. — Stephen Lunsford

Meet the charter members of The Watchdog Hall of Fame

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.</span></p>

Sen. Watson fought for insurance protections for Texas consumers.

<p></p><p></p><p><span style="background-color: transparent; font-size: 1em;">Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state's top privacy advocates</span></p><p></p><p></p>

Rep. Laubenberg proved herself to be one of the state’s top privacy advocates

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Capriglione submitted a bill two years ago to oversee roofers in Texas. It died. But he tried. He also paved a path for no-fingerprinting privacy protections.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he's gone from Austin. He's the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?</span></p><p></p>

Rep. Turner was the number-one advocate for a fair and transparent electricity system. But he’s gone from Austin. He’s the new mayor of Houston. Who will take his place?

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.</span></p><p></p>

Sen. Schwertner led the fight against businesses that improperly added a surcharge when paying with a plastic card. He was also key in fighting fingerprints being taken of all state drivers.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.</span></p>

Sen. Taylor worked on stopping Texas DPS from collecting fingerprints of all Texas drivers.

More roofing coverage from The Watchdog

Lon Smith Roofing loses suit over contract’s legality

Catching a roofer who made promises he wouldn’t keep

An indictment for him, and a turning point for me

Use Watchdog’s tips to hire roofers and contractors who are on the level

Who’s behind illegal phone calls to storm victims?

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

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Texas Realtor Tom Grisak Helps Attorney General Fight Bad Company

Note: The following story about Thomas Grisak appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017 Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News.

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For more than 30 years as a Realtor, Tom Grisak from Allen had a spotless record with his clients. He knew of no major complaints against him.

Until there was one.

An anonymous online post accused him of being too harsh when talking to a potential client  after he didn’t win a house listing. He says it’s not true.

“In all honesty, I should have ignored it and lived life,” he says. “But I didn’t want my clients to think I was anything less than above board.”

He hired a reputation management company he found online. The California company, Solvera Group, promised to handle his problem. He paid $10,800.

Solvera handled it, for sure. Solvera handled his negative online post and posts hurting several thousand other worried customers in a way that should get recognized as one of the more dastardly Internet schemes of all time.

The company created fake complaints and then orchestrated their removal.

The company’s strategy was brilliant in its design. To fix negative comments, the company, run by the elusive Chris Dinota, allegedly had to fool not only customers, but also Texas lawyers, state judges and even the big dog itself, Google. All of them fell for the scheme over and over. Web pages were removed from public search.

Grisak and other victims are at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his legal staff against Solvera. Paxton’s lawsuit appears to have helped shut down the company. Phones are disconnected, and its websites are offline. The company hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, and there’s no attorney of record for Solvera.

The Watchdog couldn’t find Dinota, the president. No personal records about him could be found. And although the suit was filed Aug. 24, he still hadn’t been served with papers. He’s tough to find. You gotta hear about this crazy company.

Remove negative online comments

Solvera’s public names were InstantComplaintRemovers.com and DefamationRemoval.com. Before the websites were taken down, they bragged of being the “#1 Rated Content Removal Solution” and promised to “Remove Complaints in as Little as 48 Hours.”

The websites said the company helped celebrities, political leaders, lawyers and doctors. The company boasted it could remove negative comments from YouTube videos, blogs, news articles, Yelp reviews and many more.

Dinota told CNN.com in a 2014 story, “We can remove something that shouldn’t be there.”

Big promises. But they were often kept. Forbes describes the elusive Dinota as “The man who duped Google into suppressing bad corporate reviews.”

How Solvera did it

This is how the attorney general says it worked:

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

After Realtor Grisak signed a contract, Solvera paid a blogger to post a second negative comment on the targeted post. Then it hired a Texas attorney to handle a defamation lawsuit against the complainer whom Solvera claimed it had identified (even though it’s the wrong person).

The hired lawyer would then file a lawsuit with legal papers Solvera wrote and prepared. Lawyers involved were misled.

Nobody told Grisak he was about to sue anyone. He says he never would have agreed to that. But Grisak Properties vs. Baroro is now a public record — even though that’s not his company’s actual name. Fake names were used in the fake lawsuits.

The judge in his defamation lawsuit was presented with an agreement that both plaintiff and defendant supposedly liked (even though they’re actually one and the same). Judge signed a final judgment “premised on a complete falsehood,” the attorney general’s lawsuit says.

The judgment is an order to Google and other search engines to “de-index” the troublesome web page. De-index means the page is still on the Internet, but is invisible in search results, meaning no one will find it.

Google follows judges’ orders.

So there you go. Judges, lawyers and Google have no idea what’s going on.

And what did go on? The original complainer was never found, and the second one was a dupe. It doesn’t matter. The entire web page vanishes.

Brilliant.

Until Paxton sues.

Not so brilliant anymore.

A big case for Ken Paxton

There are names for the strategies employed: libel takedowns and de-indexing injunctions. But few others used these tactics as strategically as this company.

In a statement, Paxton says, “My office will not allow Texas consumers, attorneys and courts to be confused and deceived by this unlawful behavior.”

Like everyone else, I couldn’t find Dinota, the disappearing ex-CEO.

A Google spokesperson told me: “We have measures in place to safeguard the integrity of our search results against bad actors seeking to game the system with fraudulent court orders. We work with law enforcement to combat fraud and abuse of the judicial system and have assisted law enforcement in their ongoing efforts on this issue.”

The Realtor says: “It all became smoke and mirrors. If I’d known that’s what Solvera was planning to do, I would have run away from them so fast and they’d never hear from me again.”

He didn’t know. How could he? Now he’s helping the attorney general make things right.

DallasNews.com staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Dear Watchdog Nation: A look back at the trouble we caused in 2016

Dear Citizens of Watchdog Nation,

You know those annoying holiday letters people send bragging about exotic vacations, their children’s middle school exploits and the sad death of their cat?

My partner Marina Trahan Martinez and I can’t resist. Welcome to The Watchdog family holiday letter, in which we lovingly look back and reflect on one of our life missions: Who’d we tick off in 2016?

Steep price to pay

Start with our definition of happy news. Remember that Denton auto mechanic, Jeff Fleming, who accepted $3,700 from a single mom but for 19 months didn’t fix her car? After our report, an anonymous donor sold the mom a car for $1. Then Denton attorney Curtis M. Loveless volunteered to take the mother’s case to court. Fleming was a no-show. A judge ordered Fleming to pay — sit down for this — $92,000.

Jeff Fleming looks at Toni Brown's Ford Focus, which he kept for a year and a half even though she paid him thousands of dollars. The Denton auto shop owner ended up losing a $92,000 judgment in the case when he failed to show up for court.
Jeff Fleming looks at Toni Brown’s Ford Focus, which he kept for a year and a half even though she paid him thousands of dollars. The Denton auto shop owner ended up losing a $92,000 judgment in the case when he failed to show up for court.

Obvious flop

We don’t celebrate anyone’s marriage breakup, but we weren’t surprised when it was announced that Tarek and Christina El Moussa of HGTV’s Flip or Flop had split. Months back, we showed how the couple had already split from an ethical life when they lent their name to second-rate, get-rich-quick seminars taking advantage of their TV fans. They responded with a YouTube video to me that was as flat as their show.

After we revealed that local investment radio show host James E. Poe was stripped of his financial adviser registration by state regulators yet still hosting a business radio show, he finally was pulled off the air.

Texas Farm Bureau tried to strip their insurance customers of their rights to sue in return for a crummy discount. We shared. The company withdrew its proposal.

Denton County Courthouse leaders are trying to pull a fast one by refusing to order an investigation of the worst Election Day voting mayhem in memory. After we organized a letter-writing protest by taxpayers to county officials, County Judge Mary Horn changed her mind and asked the Texas secretary of state to investigate. Only that office doesn’t do investigations.

We keep warning about Carrollton-based Garage Door Services, a  garage door repair company that goes by so many names it’s hard to avoid them when searching by internet. They keep popping up.

One clue: If their office sounds like a call center, it’s probably them. Prepare to overpay or, even better, find an ethical mom-and-pop company.

School business

We shined light into darker corners of the Texas public school system. How? Showing how Frisco ISD’s lavish spending on administrators’ quarters was an ugly contrast with its plea for voter approval to raise taxes. The measure lost.

Frisco ISD's Administration Building on Ohio Drive. Voters shut down a tax increase in 2016.(Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
Frisco ISD’s Administration Building on Ohio Drive. Voters shut down a tax increase in 2016.
(Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)

Sidney ISD in Central Texas didn’t hold an election for an entire decade. Board members just stayed on. The district was caught and punished by state regulators. But the matter was never covered for Sidney residents in their local press until we brought it to light.

Keeping on it, we showed how a state senator accused the Texas Association of School Boards of brainwashing school board members to put their own adult interests ahead of the children’s, how a former FBI agent found examples of corruption in the state’s worst districts, and how superintendents use marketing and advertising techniques to crush criticsof their political machines.

Don B. Southerland Jr. is a retired FBI agent and current forensics accounting investigator. After spending the last four years investigating Texas public school districts, he comes out and tells The Watchdog about the incompetence and corruption he has uncovered in several districts.<p>(Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor)</p>
Don B. Southerland Jr. is a retired FBI agent and current forensics accounting investigator. After spending the last four years investigating Texas public school districts, he comes out and tells The Watchdog about the incompetence and corruption he has uncovered in several districts.

(Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor)

Dogged determination

The most fascinating person we met in 2016 was Malia Litman of Dallas. She spent $100,000 in legal fees to expose a culture of corruption in the U.S. Secret Service. She filed 89 Freedom of Information Acts and discovered all manner of cover-ups and shenanigans. A judge ruled she had to pay the legal fees even though the government caused delays. After we told her story, the judge changed his mind and the feds paid up.

Malia Litman in her North Dallas home in July. She waged a lonely and expensive battle for public records kept by the U.S. Secret Service. She won in the end.
Malia Litman in her North Dallas home in July. She waged a lonely and expensive battle for public records kept by the U.S. Secret Service. She won in the end.

Runner-up for most fascinating: the Great Man himself, Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman/CEO/president/grand poobah. He invited The Watchdog to our “Chicken Salad Summit” luncheon. He wanted to show me how wrong I was when I wrote — in launching my #shameATT campaign— that he didn’t care about customer service.

In his office, I asked him, “How does it feel to fail?” I presented him with a red binder filled with a torrent of AT&T complaints, typical of what I’ve received for a decade.

“Make it stop,” I pleaded to the man now trying to buy Time Warner and rule the world. (I intend to revisit this on the anniversary of our summit next March.)

Watchdog Dave Lieber and AT&amp;T president and CEO Randall Stephenson in Stephenson's office talking about AT&amp;T's customer service. Stephenson is now trying to buy Time Warner.
Watchdog Dave Lieber and AT&T president and CEO Randall Stephenson in Stephenson’s office talking about AT&T’s customer service. Stephenson is now trying to buy Time Warner.

Marina and I were also quite stunned when Texas Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Donna Nelson followed up within days of our suggestion to clear out scammy (and false) 1-cent per kilowatt hour rate electricity promos. The deceptive prices showed on the front page of search results on the state’s all-important electricity shopping site, powertochoose.org. At least that was fixed. More to come on other problems.

Fail

A previous newspaper publisher of mine, Richard L. Connor, always said we needed to fail at something big at least once every year. Otherwise if you don’t try, you won’t ever succeed.

Those words came true with my satirical #WatchdogForPresident campaignwhich tried to highlight governments’ weak law enforcement against the hordes of scammers operating worldwide. I abandoned the campaign in June. I’m left with a box of unused campaign buttons. What I learned: Nobody was in the mood to laugh about the 2016 presidential race. #fail.

Our campaign to get Texans to protest their property taxes attracted new followers. Even more so, our other campaigns — now gearing up to push for pro-consumer laws in the 2017 Legislature — attracted members who email their support to watchdog@dallasnews.com.

We’re looking for a roofers/contractors license, insurance protections, privacy laws, electricity shopping reforms and property tax relief. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead. We’ll need you.

Best day of the year: our Tornado Town Hall in mid-January at the Plaza Theatre in Garland. We showed area residents how to hire legitimate contractors and not get fooled. I love the cheat sheet to hire the right people we shared.

Oh, and by the way, Dave’s cat died this year, but Marina’s family got a new cat, so we’re kinda even.

Happy New Year from The Watchdog Desk.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to everything in this report. Our editor is Mede Nix.

Check out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to you.

The Watchdog Desk at DallasNews.com consists of Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez. Our editor is Mede Nix.
The Watchdog Desk at DallasNews.com consists of Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez. Our editor is Mede Nix.

TOP 10 WATCHDOG HEADLINES

These Watchdog columns were read the most in 2016.

1.      Watchdog gets duped when HGTV’s Flip or Flop stars Tarek and Christina disappoint

2.      HGTV’s Flip or Flop hosts risk popularity with high-pressure investment seminars

3.      Watchdog: Dallas woman discovers new Secret Service sex scandals through public information requests

4.      Watchdog: How to stop annoying robocalls, scammers and Do Not Call violators

5.      What happened when our watchdog gave AT&T’s CEO a binder full of customer complaints

6.      Watchdog: Crying poverty from inside Frisco ISD’s Grand Palace

7.      How a Denton auto mechanic took a single mom’s money and held her car hostage for 19 months

8.       How to protest your property taxes in Texas

9.      Watchdog: When will AT&T get the picture?

10.  Watchdog: Think car inspections are stupid? Changes may be coming

Source: Parse.ly

Dave Lieber's manifesto for WatchdogNation.com

You can’t afford to miss The Watchdog. Follow our latest reporting always at The Watchdog page.

Watchdog Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News is leader of Watchdog Nation, which shows Americans how to stand up for themselves and become super consumers.

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Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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WATCH: Look at Watchdog Nation’s unusual 2016 Christmas Village

After seeing how he exposes corruption and bad practices in business and government, you’ll see why Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber happily loses himself in this newspaperman’s Christmas Village fantasy. #LongLiveJournalism

Watch:

Dave Lieber’s fantasy Christmas Village looks more like 1959 from Dave Lieber on Vimeo.

Season greetings from the perfect little newspaper world (otherwise known as 1959) courtesy of Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber. 

Follow his investigations at:
http://www.dallasnews.com/watchdog

Remember that you can bring Dave Lieber to your group. He’s an expert on storytelling for business and showing the power of storytelling to increase sales, build support, raise money and attract attention.

He’s a Certified Speaking Professional and a fabulous entertainer offering fun and funny insights to make your life better. He’s The Watchdog columnist at The Dallas Morning News.

Dave Lieber. Authentic. Engaging. Interactive.

WATCH: Dave Lieber’s 2-Minute SIZZLE REEL

WATCH: Dave Lieber TED Talk: THE POWER OF STORYTELLING TO CHANGE THE WORLD

BOOK DAVE NOW. Contact his office here or CALL 1-800-557-8166.

In Watchdog Nation, 2015 is our best year ever

To all Citizens of Watchdog Nation!

Hear ye! Hear ye! Straight from the founder of Watchdog Nation, here is Dave Lieber’s 2015 annual report to you.

Going up against businesses and governments, Watchdog Nation sees more victories than defeats in 2015. Fighting on behalf of Americans for fairness and honesty works. New laws were passed, questionable practices exposed and problems are fixed. Take a look:

Dave-Lieber-watchdog-nation

January

The Watchdog shares a how-to guide on the state’s new one-sticker auto registration system. Some hiccups in the program after that, yeah, but it works more smoothly than most expect.

Colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I report on a Carrollton Midas shop where the manager took cash payments and money went missing.

We answer why so many streetlights on major roadways are dark: copper wire thieves.

I unveil my Watchdog package of suggested consumer protection bills for the 2015 Texas Legislature. I have five requests, based on complaint letters to me.

They are: create a roofers licensing law; increase fairness in electricity shopping; ban penalties for asking questions about an insurance policy; cease taking full sets of fingerprints for driver’s licenses; and enact tighter penalties for merchants who penalize buyers paying with debit and credit cards.

February

The Texas Department of Public Safety announces it will voluntarily stop taking full sets of fingerprints from driver’s license applicants. DPS returns to the one-thumb standard.

The electric industry argues in industry newsletters against my proposed “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015.” My bill is not actually introduced in the Legislature because 1) I’m not a legislator and 2) most of the real lawmakers are chicken.

March

The Watchdog proclaims North Texas to be “Toll Road Capital, USA.”

Dave-Lieber-watchdog-nation

A father is billed $56,000 for his school district’s open records request about his children. (He later negotiates a better price.)

In a tough year for the driver’s license system, Texas DPS acknowledges that 850,000 driver’s licenses mailed by its outside vendor are incorrect. Replacements are shipped.

The city of Dallas approves a partnership with an outside company to sell recommended water and sewer line insurance. After criticism, the City Council ends the agreement.

April

Rookie state District Judge Staci Williams pays a former client $2,500 to settle a complaint with the State Bar of Texas Commission for Lawyer Discipline. Williams was accused of abandoning the client to work on her election campaign.

The Watchdog asks readers for help unlocking my legislative proposals in Austin. Readers respond by contacting their lawmakers.

May

My annual look at how to file a property tax protest helps thousands of North Texans understand the simple process.

Some in the real estate community believe Dallas County luxury homes are undertaxed because appraisers fear lawsuits. Dallas Central Appraisal District denies that.

Former Gov. Rick Perry presided over the creation of a secretive statewide surveillance detection network put in place by former FBI agents with assistance from former CIA personnel. DPS says the system — called TrapWire — led to 44 arrests.

Rick-Perry-surveillance-state-of-Texas

Former Gov. Rick Perry (left) and the man he appointed, “Colonel” Steve McCraw, DPS Director

June

Grand Prairie transmission shop owner Larry Duncan is training a national sales team to upsell his transmission repairs around the nation. Duncan’s training manual shows how every customer gets the same bad-news-about-your-car rap, no matter what’s actually wrong with the vehicle.

DPS officials admit they erred when they told The Watchdog that TrapWire led to 44 arrests. Actual number? Zero.

Watchdog Nation celebrates passage into law of three of five suggested bills: insurance inquiries protection, full fingerprint elimination, and plastic card usage protections. Lawmakers who led on these issues are inducted into my new “Watchdog Hall of Fame.”

Dave-Lieber-Watchdog-Hall-of-Fame

Inaugural inductees of The Watchdog Hall of Fame – 2015

My two ideas that didn’t pass? Electricity retail reform and roofer licensing. On that, see you in 2017.

July

The Watchdog wins first prize for best large-newspaper column from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Dave-Lieber-funny-keynote-speaker-wins-award

2015 Winners: Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez

August

The Watchdog trains 650 North Texans in consumer protection at a Dallas event sponsored by the Senior Source and the Elder Financial Safety Center. All are sworn in as new citizens of Watchdog Nation. They receive membership cards.

dave-lieber-dallas-speaker

Dave-Lieber-Watchdog-Nation

I begin a series on Whirlpool washing machines whose insides explode.

dave-lieber-funny-speaker

September

An AT&T call center rep says working for AT&T is so difficult that “three-quarters of my call center is on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine just to deal with the company.”

I begin a series showing how vets can untangle red tape when dealing with clogged Department of Veterans Affairs health care appeals.

October

After a national trade magazine calls the North Texas company “the worst garage door company in the nation,” I report how Carrollton-based Garage Door Services overcharges customers. After that, GDS leaders change the company name and sales pitch so potential customers won’t easily recognize them.

November

Marina and I create the first published list of electricity companies that offer plans without minimum usage fees — and rank them by customer service quality.

AT&T charges less for Web users who allow AT&T to sell their private information — including their Internet search history — to outside vendors.

A 79-year-old widower hooked up to an oxygen tank spends $13,000 on a dating service. He’s matched with an aerobics instructor who teaches kick boxing. She’s 30 years younger.

December

A former manager at Garage Door Services shares his guilt because he knew his company engaged in overcharges — but he liked his paycheck too much to do anything about it.

What will 2016 bring? Marina and I say, bring it on!

And remember, you can’t afford to miss The Watchdog.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Check out The Watchdog at 11:20 a.m. Mondays on NBC5, talking about matters important to you.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

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“Worst garage door company” busted by Watchdog Nation

Before you call a garage door company for repairs or replacement, READ THIS.

One company with many different names and websites is commandeering the market across the U.S.

But it’s called the nation’s “worst garage door company.”

It goes by many names — Garage Door Services, GDS, Neighborhood Garage Door Services, Yes Garage Door Service (which uses a phony address on invoices) and many, many more.

The company overcharges. That’s what it does.  It takes a $200 job and turns it into a $2,000 job.

It’s all here, below.

Here’s a great clue about them: their main phone numbers are 800-215-1223 and 800-833-3520. But they use others.

So learn about this company in these stories by Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber that appeared in The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column.

Dave-Lieber-exposes-Garage-Door-Services

 

Click on these links to read these investigative reports.

Watchdog: Dallas-area garage door company labeled worst in nation

Watchdog: Garage door company sells you what you don’t need

Now in Dallas, garage door company founder evades public attention

Watchdog: Listen to clues in sales script to find good guys

Watchdog: Carrollton-based garage door company’s ex-manager fesses up

Here’s company founder Pete Stephens:

Garage-Door-Services-founder-Pete-Stephens

Here’s former manager Justin Willard:

former-GDS-manager-Justin-Willard

Read the trade industry magazine story that exposes the company here.
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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun website: DaveLieber.org

Watchdog Nation celebrates 3 new consumer laws

Amazing!

You did it!

Watchdog Nation celebrates the passage of three new laws aimed at helping Texans protect their pocketbooks and their privacy.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Dallas Morning News Watchdog column know, The Watchdog asked for your help to push state lawmakers into solving five of the most annoying consumer problems in Texas.

We promoted five bills in the 2015 Texas Legislature.

Many thought little would come of these proposals, which we called the “Good Deal” platform.

We used as our bully pulpit The Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News — and, most important, its thousands of readers, some of whom participated in the campaign to help lawmakers who sponsored the bills. These everyday constituents sent letters and emails stating their support.

It worked.

So how did we do in the 2015 Legislature?

Three of our five bills passed. Three for five! The Watchdog rarely uses exclamation points, but that’s a .600 batting average, good enough to get into a hall of fame.

That’s why Watchdog Nation launched The Watchdog Hall of Fame. Six state lawmakers who worked hard on behalf of these five causes are the inaugural 2015 inductees.

We’re proud to tell you their names: Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano; Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown; Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker; Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake; and Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

Dave-Lieber-Watchdog-Hall-of-Fame

Inaugural inductees of The Watchdog Hall of Fame – 2015

 

WATCH THE HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY ON NBC5 HERE:

 

Let’s look at what happened in each of the five areas and give lawmakers Good Deal grades.

Insurance policy questions | Grade: A+

A key to my Watchdog Nation consumer rights movement is the idea that we should always ask a bunch of questions before making financial decisions.

But you couldn’t do that in Texas with your homeowners or auto insurance policies without risking a premium increase. Some companies took advantage of a loophole in the law to penalize customers who made inquiries. No more.

Thanks to Watson, it will be illegal in Texas for auto and homeowners insurance companies to penalize customers who only ask questions about their policies, but never seek actual claims.

The insurance industry, in its all-knowing wisdom, decided that simply asking about your policy shows a propensity for accidents. They figure you’ll eventually cost them money.

One man I found considered filing an auto claim but in the end didn’t file and never received any insurance money. His premiums went up for five years anyway.

Watson tried two years ago to get this law passed but didn’t succeed. This time he succeeded.

Support from Watchdog Nation “certainly helped,” Watson spokeswoman Kate Alexander says.

Watson says, “Giving customers the freedom to ask questions about their insurance policies without repercussion is just common sense.”

Learn more: Senate Bills 188 and 189

Kirk Watson Hall of Fame plaque

Roofers’ licensing | Grade: D+

The Watchdog sought a licensing system for roofers to weed out the bad guys.

When two lawmakers — Capriglione and Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas — introduced bills that would create a voluntary certification (Capriglione) or registration program (Sheets) that was weaker than licensing. But still, it was an added step of consumer protection.

Unfortunately, neither bill advanced out of House committees to make it to the full House for a vote.

“The countless emails from North Texas readers helped to support the cause of the bill,” Capriglione says. “But it is also important to contact the members of the committee and show them the support for the bill, and more importantly, be at the committee hearing to testify for the bill.”

Live and learn. The Watchdog is paying close attention.

The city of Arlington has taken an extra step to protect its residents from crooked roofers. Last month, the city created a roofers’ registration process that screens roofers who want to work in the city.

Giovanni Capriglione Hall of Fame plaque

Electricity shopping reform | Grade: D-

Priority one for The Watchdog was my idealistic “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015.” This proposal had no chance of passage in 2015.

The only reason the grade is not an F is because Turner, who is retiring, did what he always does: fight for electricity customers in Texas.

He authored a bill that would have eliminated the hated penalty fees for customers who don’t use a required minimum amount of power each month. These fees are especially unfair to the elderly and the poor who try to conserve, then get socked with monthly penalties.

These penalties didn’t exist until recently when electricity companies figured out a new way to exploit customers.

Turner’s bill failed. Still, he’ll be missed. No one else in the legislature seems to care about helping consumers navigate the confusing retail electricity market. Rates are advertised with and without added fees. Door-to-door electricity salesmen will say almost anything to make a sale. Annoying fees — unregulated — are tacked on to monthly bills by electricity companies.

Behind the scenes, electricity companies and their lobbying groups convinced lawmakers that there’s nothing major wrong with the system. Public Utility Commission officials also take the attitude that no major changes are needed.

Many Texans disagree.

At least my campaign generated attention. Pros and cons were discussed by me and others on radio, on TV and in two energy newsletters read by industry members across the state and nation.

I’m disappointed that the power industry doesn’t want to clean up its shady marketing practices. Keep it up, and their credibility will match roofers.

The Watchdog is not giving up.

Sylvester Turner Hall of Fame plaque

Debit/credit card surcharges | Grade: A+

Yes, it’s illegal for retailers and others to add a surcharge penalty to customers who pay with a debit or credit card. Governments are excluded and allowed to charge extra.

When somebody complains, merchants get a warning letter from the state. That’s it.

No longer.

Thanks to hard work by Schwertner, anyone who violates the law will get more than a warning letter. They can expect a $500 fine.

Yee-haw!

Learn more: Senate Bill 641

Charles Schwertner Hall of Fame plaque

Fingerprinting for driver’s licenses | Grade: A+

The curtain officially comes down on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s dream of capturing a full set of fingerprints from every Texan with a driver’s license or state ID card in the next decade. The plan was to include us in a state and ultimately, a national database.

The Watchdog first reported the fingerprinting scheme last year. In February, Taylor and Laubenberg met with DPS Director Steven McCraw and DPS’ top lawyer to talk about ending the program.

Laubenberg met with House Speaker Joe Straus. Taylor met with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff. Under fire, McCraw stopped the program.

To make it stick, though, a new law was needed.

Laubenberg, Taylor, Schwertner and rookie Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tried various maneuvers to place into law that only a thumbprint is required. They also wanted DPS to destroy the hundreds of thousands of fingerprints collected during the one year the unauthorized collection took place.

Taylor, a rookie senator, added a Senate amendment to a bill about commercial driver’s licenses. The amendment enacted the thumbprint rule and also required that fingerprints collected from innocent drivers be destroyed by the end of the year.

When that bill got to the House, its author, Capriglione, agreed to let the added portion of the bill stand. It passed.

Learn more: House Bill 1888

Jodie Laubenberg Hall of Fame plaque

Van Taylor Hall of Fame plaque

I’ll be watching for your ideas about consumer matters you want to see fixed in the 2017 session. We’ll battle together. Onward and upward.

Thanks to Michael Hogue of DallasNews.com for designing our Hall of Fame plaques.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites: DaveLieber.org