Excerpt about Garage Door Services from Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation book (2015 edition)

Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber first wrote about Garage Door Services in 2006.

The following is from his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. (Just released 2015 edition available here.)

Click the image below to open it and read this 2-page story.

dave lieber-watchdognation-Garage-Door-Service-GDS

Excerpt from the book Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation — Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong (based on a 2006 incident)

AUDIO: Watchdog Nation Confronts “Inspector Luigi” The Scammer

Note: Columnist Dave Lieber revisits the story of retired American Airlines captain George Kahak in this 2014 Dallas Morning News column, “A man who fell for, and lost, everything.” After it appeared, readers requested to hear the original audio of Lieber talking to scammer “Inspector Luigi” who pretended to be a U.S. Customs Agent. Watchdog Nation reprints this 2009 post with the sound recordings below.

Ever wonder what a scammer sounds like? Listen to a vulture who preys upon the elderly with a phone call. He wants the 86-year-old man to wire money to a foreign country. But this scam can be stopped when you know how it works. That’s the basis of consumer protection and my Watchdog Nation.

Please let me introduce you to Inspector Luigi. (This next video is an intro, but you can skip to the actual audio files below.)

He is with the U.S. Customs Service — or so this fraud says. He called my pal, George Kahak, who probably holds the world title as victim of the most scams.

I first wrote about George in my Dave Lieber Watchdog column in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2009. The story is so fascinating that I reprinted it in my book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation.

I’d love for you to read the short chapter on George in this memorable excerpt.

So the other day George called me. He was about to get bit again. He won a half million dollars in a lottery. But the organizers wanted to explain to him how to claim his prize. It involved him sending money to them.

As always, I warned him off. But this time, when Inspector Luigi called George, I was there.

I asked George if I could take the phone. Then I told Inspector Luigi that George is hard of hearing. Meanwhile, I taped it for you.

Captain George Kahak. He died in 2010.

Captain George Kahak. He died in 2010.

Please listen to the slick, deep voice of this con artist. He’s a beaut. Each segment is just a few minutes.

In Act I, he explains the scam to me in detail.

Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/davelieber/inspector-luigi-part-i

In Act II, he continues his ridiculous explanation.

https://soundcloud.com/davelieber/inspector-luigi-part-ii 

In Act III, well, here’s the real drama. He tells me where to wire the money. Then, The Watchdog confronts him. (This sound file ends when the good inspector hangs up on me.)

https://soundcloud.com/davelieber/inspector-luigi-part-iii

In Act IV, I call back a few days later and Luigi pretends he is some other guy who answers the phone. When he tries to connect me — surprise — I get disconnected.

https://soundcloud.com/davelieber/inspector-luigi-part-iv 

And in the finale, Act V, he tries to pretend, once again, that he is someone else. But it’s obviously his voice.

https://soundcloud.com/davelieber/inspector-luigi-part-v 

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Bastards like Luigi do this every day. There are thousands of them. They prey on your grandmother, your parents, your friends and neighbors. They are so convincing that they get enough victims to make this worthwhile. Luigi is a classic case.

Watchdog Nation can’t stop the Inspector Luigis of the world from operating, but you can expose them and make it clear to all exactly how they operate.

Please share this blog post with those whom you care about.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Please use these icons below to share this warning message on Facebook, Twitter and your other favorite social sites.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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

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

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Did you get slammed for unwanted $29.95 a month credit monitoring? You can get a refund.

Call me naive, but I imagined a company that tricks people into paying $29.95 a month for a credit-monitoring service they didn’t know they ordered would be headquartered in a faraway land.

A company that lured people with the promise of free credit scores in big print but hid the actual cost in tiny print must be offshore, right?

A company that informs surprised customers it can cancel anytime but isn’t available to take cancellations? Hidden somewhere on an island nation?

Nah. Try the 8100 block of Walnut Hill Lane in Dallas.

one tech b

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, One Technologies Inc. is headquartered on the sixth floor of a corporate tower.

I first learned about the company weeks ago after my wife, Karen, tried to get her free credit report from the government-sponsored site and accidentally ended up on one of the dozens of websites run by the Dallas company.

She typed in her personal information, then pulled back when asked for credit card information.

No payment is required on government-sponsored annualcreditreport.com. But One Technologies has gamed the Internet so its dozens of websites confuse people.

The company, which uses many names including ScoreSense and MyCreditHealth, is easily found through its use of common search terms linked to its many websites. The sites’ names carry common keywords such as “free credit report” and “check credit scores.” The company also purchased click-on ads to attract users.

This month, the façade of respectability disappeared for One Technologies. The Federal Trade Commission, working with the states of Ohio, Illinois and Texas, successfully brought legal action to stop the company’s sales practices.

The FTC, in legal filings, reports 210,000 complaints against the company from banks, credit card companies, law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau.

One Technologies “participated in deceptive acts,” according to a final court order agreed to by company officials and made public this month.

One Technologies must pay $22 million into a restitution fund for victims.

The company can no longer hide its online terms of purchase in obscure web boxes that users must open to see. Terms must be clear and conspicuous. Frustrated customers must be allowed to cancel immediately through an available call center.

Last week, I visited the company in its office tower and expected to find it shuttered. That’s what Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office promised in a news release.

Abbott’s headline bragged, “State of Texas Shuts Down Bogus Online ‘Free’ Credit Scores Scheme.”

Imagine my confusion when I walked into the company’s sixth floor suite and found people working.

Turns out Abbott’s office oversold. After the company complained, the headline was changed: “State of Texas Stops Online Scheme that Claimed to Offer ‘Free’ Credit Score Schemes but Charged Monthly Fees.”

That’s not the only mistake I see in this enforcement action against a company that capitalizes on customers’ mistakes. In its only public statement about its comedown, One Technologies attempts to turn a national disgrace into a crowning achievement.

The company headlines its public statement: “ScoreSense/One Technologies Sets New Benchmark for Industry Transparency and Disclosure.”

In its opening sentence, the company claims that it “set a new standard for the industry’s clearest and simplest subscription disclosures.”

The company brags that it has helped “to establish industry best practices for enrolling customers” in online businesses.

Denying what it agreed to in the court order, the statement refers to government claims against it as “alleged” and states that “the terms of One Technologies’ offers have always been disclosed to the consumer.”

Fred Loeber, an executive, is quoted: “We call on our competitors to adopt this new benchmark.”

Shameless audacity.

“No fines or penalties were imposed,” the statement continues. “One Technologies will establish a fund for providing refunds to certain past customers.”

How nice. An established fund. Sounds like a scholarship. There’s no mention of $22 million in the company statement.

This company accused by the feds and three states of deception shows in its own words that it hasn’t learned the lesson. Shameless audacity.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @DaveLieber.

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

# # #

In the Know

Get free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Type the address correctly.

Here’s a list of websites used by One Technologies:

freescoreonline.com

freescore360.com

checkmycreditnow.com

freeonlinescore.com

creditreports.com

freecreditcheck.com

freescoreusa.com

mycredithealtlh.com

ScoreSense.com

spendonlife.com

2012TransUnionExperianandEquifaxScores.com

3-BureauCreditScores.com

3-BureauMonitoring.com

3-FreeCredit-Scores.com

3-in-1 creditscore.com

Amazing-CreditScores.com

CreditCheck2013.com

CreditReview2013.com

Credit-Review-Team.com

CreditScore-Check.com

Credit-Scores.net

CreditSummary.com

FastAccessToYourCreditScore.com

FastReview.us

FraudMonitoringOffer.com

FreeScoreCheck360.com

MyFree3B.com

MyFree3Bcheck.com

Online-CreditScores.com.

ProfessionalCreditScores.com

ScoreCheck.net

Scores-2012.com

Scores2013.com

ScoresDirect.net

Think-Credit-Scores.com

TimeForACreditCheckUp.com

TrackerTripleScores.com

ViewYourCreditScoreFast.com

Your-Credit-Check.com.

YourCreditScoreIsWaitingForYou.com

YourFree3B.com

YourFree3Bcheck.com

YourFree3Bscore.com

YourFreeScore360.com

Your-Score-Check.com

YourScoreCheck.com

SOURCE: Texas attorney general’s office

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

The Watchdog: Time Warner Cable’s fine print fools a customer

I’m fed up with businesses that tease us with large print come-ons in advertising and hide the conditions in small print that most people miss. Until now, the worst I’d seen recently was at the State Fair of Texas. The sign stated, “Ask Me About our Botox.” Underneath, in tiny print, was the word “Effect.”

So it’s not Botox. It’s the Botox Effect. Doh.

Today I call out Time Warner Cable for doing the same to Sherry Buffington of Farmers Branch and who knows how many others.

She received a flier from TWC with a “limited-time offer.” If she upgrades her TV-Internet-phone package, she would receive a Samsung Galaxy Note tablet. “A $399 Value,” the ad states.

Buffington called TWC and asked about the promotion. A customer service rep promised her she qualified for the expensive tablet. She gave the go-ahead for a switch.

But the tablet never arrived. She went round and round with the company for the next several weeks. Nobody would give her a straight answer about why she didn’t receive the promised gift. She contacted The Watchdog and told me she felt “duped.”

TWC informed me that Buffington had not read the fine print on the offer and did not qualify. That was the bad news. The good news, however, was that TWC folks went back and listened to a recording of her original phone call and heard that the rep promised her a tablet when he shouldn’t have.

TWC offered Buffington a $300 bill credit as a makeup for the error. TWC’s position: She had to switch to a specific bundled package (which she didn’t) and the fine print explained that.

I contacted Buffington and told her tsk, tsk, you gotta read the fine print in life. But then Buffington sent me the actual ad and I was truly surprised. The fine print was so small and in a lighter shade of type than the rest of the flier. The rest of the flier was in big letters. But this fine print was so small I couldn’t even read what she sent me. It was disgustingly small.

fine print

To be fair to TWC, the company is not selling the tablet but the bundled package. The tablet is the lure. But this reminds me of the famous saying: “The big print gives, and the small print takes away.”

I asked the company to send me a sharper copy. I measured the font size. The letters are 1/16 of an inch tall. The tiny print alerts customers that they must sign up for a specific package to qualify.

When I asked Melissa C. Sorola, TWC’s director of public relations, about this, she pointed out that the requirements “are stated three times in the documents.” Yes, that’s true. But it was in 1/16 of an inch everywhere. I don’t find that acceptable. Do you?

Font size in ads is an issue when shopping for electricity in Texas. Under state rules electricity requirements must be “written in language that is clear, plain and easily understood, and shall be printed in paragraphs of no more than 250 words and in a font no smaller than 10 point.”

For perspective, a 10-point font size is twice as large as the font used by TWC for its small print.

The Federal Trade Commission gives guidelines to businesses for fine-print advertising on its ftc.gov website. The regulatory agency has what it calls Clear and Conspicuous Standards.

“Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information — like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer — near the advertised price.

“Print advertisers should not attempt to hide the real cost or the critical terms or conditions by putting them in obscure locations, such as the border area on a print ad, burying them in numerous densely packed lines of fine print or including them in small-type footnotes.”

The FTC adds, “It’s against the law for businesses to bury important details about a product or service in the fine print.”

The Watchdog continues to become less trusting of companies that try to hide information from us. I agree with Buffington when she tells The Watchdog: “Deception is never acceptable, and consumers definitely should not stand for it.”

IN THE KNOW: FTC standards

Here are the Federal Trade Commission’s Clear and Conspicuous Standards:

Prominence: Is the fine print big enough for people to notice and read?

Presentation: Is the wording and format easy for people to understand?

Placement: Is the fine print where people will look?

Proximity: Is the fine print near the claim it qualifies?

If an ad violates these standards, complain to the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP or visit www.ftc.gov/complaint.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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The Watchdog: Dealer sells a car but later changes its mind

Every so often The Watchdog hears from people who regret buying a car. Maybe they drove home and realized the price was too high. Or they bought the wrong car.

They go back to their dealer and try to return the car. Too bad, so sad. There’s a legal contract, pal. And don’t even think about leaving the car.

If an upset buyer ditches a purchased car, a tow truck comes from the financing company. A black mark for repossession goes on the buyer’s record. But what if it were to happen the other way?

What if a dealer sells someone a car but then a day later gets seller’s remorse? What if a dealer signs a sales contract with a customer and then backs out after their lender doesn’t like the terms?

That’s what’s happening to Sandra Baker, an Arlington resident who works two jobs to save enough money to buy a car. She thought she found her ideal ride at Patterson Kia of Arlington — a 2012 Nissan Sentra for $15,000 that includes an extended warranty.

sentra

High interest at 18 percent, but the best part is no money down. She signed the deal and received the congratulations of the sales staff. When she went back the next day to get it, they wouldn’t give her the car. She was asked to sign a new deal.

The good news was her payments dropped. The bad news was that she was now asked to make a $2,500 down payment and find a co-signer. Baker turned the deal down. A contract is a contract, she said firmly.

The Watchdog discussed the matter with Joe Johnson, general manager at Patterson Kia, and another staffer in the finance department who handled the deal. I learned from them that the documents Baker signed were not final sales agreements but conditional on the availability and approval of outside financing, they said.

The deal was completed late at night after their lender closed. The finance officer guessed what terms would work. But the guess was wrong. They told me that after the lender’s rejection, they were allowed to put the original deal aside and seek a new one.

There was no intent to hurt the customer, Johnson said. “We do everything here by the book.” After we talked, Patterson Kia called Baker and offered her a third deal. This time the offer was a $1,100 down payment. She rejected that offer, too. She likes her original deal with no money down.

“They should honor this,” she says. “It’s not my mistake. If it’s a mistake by their financial officer, I hate it. I’m sorry. But I think they should honor the deal.”

Both sides are at a standoff now. In a phone interview, the dealership’s GM pointed out places in his contract that show Baker didn’t own the car. One document signed by Baker is called a conditional delivery agreement.

It states the deal hinges on whether “final approval of financing is granted by a financial institution.”

That seems clear enough. But North Texas consumer lawyer Jerry Jarzombek reviewed the document for me. He described the language used as “flaky” and pointed to inconsistencies that he said were enough to get the agreement tossed.

Elsewhere in the contract, it states in capital letters, “THIS CONTRACT IS NOT VALID UNTIL YOU AND WE SIGN IT.” Baker signed her name.

But the GM insisted that his dealership did not sign the contract. He’s right. There’s no signature with a pen. But someone stamped the dealer’s name on the line beside the words “Seller signs.” Under federal law, a stamped company name is as good as a signature, Jarzombek said, adding: “They rubber-stamped it. They’ve obligated themselves to deliver the car. They established mutual obligation.”

What can a consumer do? File a lawsuit for breach of contract and possible violations of deceptive trade practice laws.

If a consumer wins, a settlement may include additional money for damages and legal fees. GM Johnson says the language used in his documents is clear. “All I can tell you is, I’m in the car sales business. I’m not a bank. We offered her the terms that the bank made available to her.”

It could be worse. Under Patterson Kia’s conditional delivery agreement, if someone buys a car and drives it off a lot but a lender later doesn’t approve, the buyer has to return the car. If the buyer left a trade-in but that car is gone, Patterson Kia only has to pay the agreed trade-in value to make things right.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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

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Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: Stream Energy target of racketeering class-action lawsuit

One of Texas’ best-known electricity companies has been smacked with a major and quite unexpected setback. Stream Energy and its marketing arm Ignite face a class-action lawsuit in a Houston federal court charging that Stream and Ignite sell through a pyramid scheme in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The recipients of any potential settlement include hundreds of thousands of independent associates who worked for Ignite selling Stream electricity contracts between 2005 and 2011.

Houston lawyer Scott M. Clearman, who filed the case, says in a worst-case scenario, if Stream has to pay a major settlement, “It could close the company.”

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Business experts say the ramifications of this lawsuit are so deep that a Stream loss in the case could wreak havoc across the entire multilevel marketing industry.

Chairman and co-founder Rob Snyder tells The Watchdog the suit is “distressing.” The allegations are untrue, he says.

The company is appealing and several Stream officials tell me they expect an appeals court to dismiss the class-action certification. We’ll see.

Snyder says there is no pyramid scheme because the company sells a true product and uses established multilevel marketing systems to build its massive sales force: “We sell electricity, and we pay for word-of-mouth advertising through our associates,” he says.

Clearman’s 5-year-old lawsuit against Dallas-based Stream tells a different story. The lawyer charges that the company’s sales setup benefits those at the top. He cites federal racketeering laws because, he says, phone and mail were used to perpetrate the fraud in a conspiracy led by Stream and Ignite leaders.

Although promises of big income gains are made to bring sales people in, at least 25 percent of those who invest to get started in the sales program don’t make their money back, his lawsuit claims.

Stream chairman Snyder explains that it’s natural for sales team leaders at the top of a hierarchy to make more money than low-level associates.

“Our leaders build sales organizations, and they get a commission on the sale when our customers use electricity,” Snyder says.

The case has attracted little attention. Even a top-ranking Public Utility Commission of Texas official said the agency was not aware of the class-action certification until informed last week by The Watchdog. But the ramifications go much further than Stream alone.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other sales organizations have weighed in with a legal brief. They argue that if the case is successful, businesses using multilevel marketing could face a series of challenges from participants who lose money.

“A wide range of businesses, from mortgage lenders to for-profit colleges would face the risk of being coerced into extortionate settlements without having a meaningful opportunity to present legitimate defenses,” the brief states.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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Stream’s Snyder says, “All you have to do is allege a pyramid scheme and you’ll be presumptively certified as a class-action. Defendant firms are looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Surprisingly, a staunch critic of pyramid schemes — and someone who once predicted Stream’s selling strategy would collapse under its own weight — now defends the company in this situation.

Southern Methodist University marketing professor Daniel Howard says, “The danger in this lawsuit is that if this goes through, it may ruin an entire industry, and it could bring down some pretty reputable companies as well.

“Once you have a class-action lawsuit like this saying there’s a racketeering and corrupt influence, it gives an ugly veneer to an entire industry, and that’s not necessarily true.”

The lawyer suing Stream and Ignite points to a $329 entry fee to join the sales program and a $29 monthly fee to host a sales website. He says many never make their money back. He cites dozens of sales recruitment meetings in the lawsuit where promises of great wealth were made to hopeful participants.

Until now, Stream has been riding high. The company started in 2005 and now has 350,000 Texas customers and 200,000 more electricity customers in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Its marketing materials describe it as “one of the fastest-growing new enterprises in the history of American business” and “the largest network marketer of energy in the world.” The company claims about $6 billion in revenue since it began.

Most of the time, the company has stayed out of trouble. The Texas attorney general’s office has only two dozen complaints on file about the company. However, the PUC fined the company $94,000 in 2011 for numerous violations relating to contracts, marketing, connections and many other state rules.

Another top Stream executive, president Mark Schiro, tells The Watchdog: “We feel strongly that we will ultimately prevail in this case.” The judge’s decision was wrong, he adds. “And nothing has yet to be proven.”

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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

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

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

The Watchdog: An offer of a free cruise or airline tickets always comes with a catch

The next time you receive an invitation offering a free cruise or airline tickets if you attend a sales seminar with your spouse and your credit card, please do The Watchdog a favor: Remember the Harbin family.

The Harbins, along with thousands of other North Texans, received invites with a return address showing the logo of Royal Caribbean International cruise line. The letters included fake boarding passes with the recipients’ names on them.

The letters were actually from Oasis Getaway, a travel club that opened temporary quarters in a business campus off Southlake Boulevard. Oasis Getaway used the logo until Royal Caribbean lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter.

cruise-ships-at-grand-turk-1106432-m

The letters promised a cruise in return for a sales pitch. Kenneth and Jeanne Harbin of Justin like cruises, so they went to Southlake to hear the presentation.

The salesman, Kenneth Harbin recalls, “was slick but believable.”

One salesman was a fast talker from New Jersey who told his personal story. His father left his family. His mother had cancer. He never got to take a vacation. But when he joined the travel program he was now selling, he got to see the world. He’s happily married. Oh, and he’s found Jesus.

And guess what? He sells the same happiness to you for $8,995.

For that one-time payment on a credit card, Oasis Getaway promised to help book vacations around the world at lower prices than generally available.

Oasis Getaway claimed 31 years of travel experience on its website. Actually, the company was only a few months old.

The company sold its services to North Texans by explaining that its partner company purchased vacation packages in bulk and could offer low rates and excellent service for resorts, hotels, cruises, airline tickets and many other travel packages. For families that traveled a lot, the cost would pay for itself in savings, the sales staff promised.

encanto-1217173-m

The Harbins have six children, so they bought seven weeks of condo time, plus the lifetime membership, for a negotiated price of $7,294.

The partner, Reservation Services International of Florida, did provide the Harbins prices that were several hundred dollars lower than what they found on their own and with an actual travel agent.

Oasis offered contracts for lifetime memberships with only a few hundred dollars a year more required for annual dues. Hundreds of Texans paid for memberships, some as low as $3,000, others as high as $10,000.

The Harbins were given five days to cancel. But they didn’t test the service to book vacation trips until a few months later. They said Reservations Services International was slow getting back with price quotes. Sometimes they waited more than a week.

The delays made the Harbins impatient. They booked trips without RSI’s help.

In a protest letter to Oasis Getaway’s owner, the Harbins wrote that they found the membership they bought to be “completely useless so far.”

The Harbins asked for a refund, but they were told the company did not like to give refunds.

So the Harbins researched the company’s owners through state records. Then they filed a small claims lawsuit in an Irving Justice of the Peace court. Oasis Getaway no longer runs sales seminars in Texas, but it lists a residential address in Irving as its current mailing address.

Last week, the Harbins and the Oasis Getaway owners stood in a busy hallway outside the Justice of the Peace court haggling over the amount of a refund.

The owners, Thanh “Tony” Q. Nguyen of Irving and Linh C. Dinh of Duluth, Ga., made the case in the hallway that customers such as the Harbins have the “wrong expectations” about their services.

The Harbins countered that they were only asking for what was promised in the sales seminar.

Dinh has been in the travel business for years. A club he owned in Georgia settled charges of trade and commerce violations for $160,000 in penalties and $35,000 in costs, Georgia records show.

The Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs accused Dinh’s company of misleading customers about the location of travel destinations, not allowing refunds and cancellations, asking customers to pay $249 for free tickets, lying to customers about how the business worked, and using others’ logos to indicate partnerships that did not exist.

The company denied the charges but paid the penalty. As part of that, 43 Georgia customers received refunds of $700 to $7,200.

This time it wasn’t a powerful state agency but Kenneth and Jeanne Harbin. In the hallway, the couple and the owners batted refund numbers back and forth like a tennis rally.

The clincher came when Jeanne Harbin said she didn’t care whether the case went to trial because that would leave a scar on the company’s permanent record that other customers would see.

Hearing that, the owners agreed to refund the Harbins $5,500 in exchange for them dropping the lawsuit. The couple agreed.

Dinh and Nguyen declined to talk to me. “Reporters are never fair,” Dinh said in the parking lot.

Kenneth Harbin’s advice for anyone receiving a come-on with free cruise or airline tickets: “Throw it away.”

Oh, and the Harbins never took the promised free cruise because of paperwork complications.

Read more stories on Watchdog Nation about Oasis Getaway here and here.

In the Know: Tips

Travel clubs are risky. Some who sign a contract after a high-pitched sales seminar later regret it.

Be skeptical of offers of free cruises or airplane tickets in exchange for attending a sales presentation.

Never sign a contract for a travel club immediately after a hard sell. Take the contract home; show it to a lawyer and family members.

If a salesman warns that a deal is no good if you don’t sign immediately, steer clear.

Always check out a club’s reviews on the Internet to find out whether promised services are delivered.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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

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The Watchdog: Richardson lawyer accuses DirecTV of fraud, conspiracy, racketeering

The man sitting at the counter at Zeke’s Kitchen restaurant in Garland is acting suspicious. He doesn’t want any food but takes a glass of water. He says he’s waiting on a friend, but no one shows up. He asks that the channel be changed on the restaurant TV.

Then the man steps outside and begins taking pictures of the restaurant. When owner Brandon “Zeke” Roberson asks him what he’s doing, the man runs off.

Roberson’s wife, Julie, thinks it’s suspicious enough that she makes a note of it on the restaurant office’s calendar: “Very strange acting man. Ran off when Brandon asked why he was taking pictures outside.”

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Months later, they learn what it’s all about. The man is a fraud investigator for DirecTV, sent to find out if the Robersons are TV signal thieves. Did they sign up for a residential TV account but use it at their commercial establishment?

In June, DirecTV cuts off the restaurant’s service. Then DirecTV’s collection lawyers notify the Robersons that they owe $15,000 in back bills. It’s the darkest day in the restaurant’s history. So much so that the couple have to close the place to catch their breath.

“There are days where you just need to refocus,” a sign on the front door reads. “Hope to see you all Monday when we return with clear eyes and better attitudes.”

The Robersons are certain there’s a misunderstanding. They were never told the difference between a commercial and residential account by the installer. They assumed they had the correct account. They assumed wrong.

To this point, this is a run-of-the-mill business case. Then something unusual happens that changes everything.

The Robersons hire a lawyer, Susan Elizabeth Wright of Richardson, who at first envisions an easy solution. She’ll work to negotiate the final settlement number as low as possible for her clients. They’ll pay something, but her hope is it won’t be much.

Wright begins to research the case, and what she learns is startling. She detects a pattern across the United States of DirecTV installers who, she believes, intentionally mislead business customers into signing contracts for residential accounts without realizing it. Several years later, DirecTV comes after the customers, usually for $15,000 as an initial settlement offer.

Wright sues DirecTV in Dallas County district court on behalf of Zeke’s Kitchen. But this lawsuit doesn’t only challenge DirecTV’s billing practices in the Roberson case. It accuses the satellite television signal provider of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering for its role in a pattern of lawsuits accusing small business owners of stealing TV signals.

The business owners she discovers in her research all have similar stories to that of the Robersons. They believed they were buying the correct commercial signal package for their restaurants, only to get socked later with big back bills.

It’s easy to see the confusion. The contract signed by the Robersons doesn’t clearly show whether it’s a residential or commercial account.

DirecTV spokesman Robert G. Mercer tells The Watchdog: “Using residential programming for commercial purposes is a violation of federal law and our programming agreements. [It’s] unfair to competing bars and restaurants that are paying legitimate commercial rates for their programming.

“We always want to resolve these cases as amicably as possible and that was our intention with Mr. Roberson, until the law firm representing him decided to file a baseless lawsuit, which DirecTV will vigorously defend. DirecTV has filed counter-claims for the unauthorized use and display of its programming.”

DirecTV uses third-party installers, and the one that installed the Robersons’ system on behalf of DirecTV admits he goofed.

In an attempt to get the Robersons off the hook, the installer, Gary Young, owner of Young Ideas, sends an email to DirecTV: “I had just opened my dealership. Went to this guy’s small deli shop and sold him service, not knowing the difference between the commercial and residential as I do now. The customer has no clue also. … I had no intentions of doing wrong. Simply a mistake.”

DirecTV decides to go after the restaurant’s owners anyway.

So Wright, the lawyer, takes on the big company, insisting she can prove a charge as serious as racketeering.

Ohio cafe owners say nobody ever told them the difference between residential and commercial. Same deal for the tavern owner in North Carolina.

Same thing happened at a sushi restaurant in California, a pizzeria in Pennsylvania, another pizzeria in Maine and a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murphy.

“The pattern is clear,” the lawyer says. DirecTV cites a business for $15,000 and then offers to settle for $9,000. In each of these cases, she says, the business owners insisted they sought a proper commercial account, but they apparently were deceived, she says.

In many cases, DirecTV and its collections law firm, Lonstein Law Office of Ellenville, N.Y., have collected settlement money for back payments because settling is often the easiest exit strategy, Wright says. Not her, though. Not this time, she insists.

The lawyer has one more ace in the hole. In 2010, DirecTV signed an agreement with the Texas attorney general that the company would closely monitor its third-party installers to make sure they engage in truthful business practices. Anything short of that is a violation of the agreement.

Young, the installer, and members of the Lonstein law firm did not respond to The Watchdog’s request for an interview.

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The Watchdog: On DART paratransit rides, customers complain of drivers who demean them

“Client states that vehicle was very unclean. Seats were wet and client later realized that she sat in urine.”

“Patron states the driver was very unclean. Patron’s words were ‘That driver needs to take a bath.’”

“Driver smelled of beer. Was going in and out of traffic. No working seatbelts. Driver was extremely rude.”

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I don’t know the names of the people whose complaints are summarized in today’s Watchdog report. Their words follow a subhead labeled “Customer Comments” on complaint forms about Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s paratransit system for the disabled.

These nameless riders have had their identities blacked out on the forms for privacy reasons. This was ordered by the Texas attorney general, who ruled that DART had to give me the forms I requested from May until August — more than a thousand.

The Watchdog asked for the forms to examine the customer service culture of MV Transportation, which holds the year-old contract with DART to run the paratransit system. How severe are the paratransit troubles, as reported by my colleagues, reporters Tom Benning and Brandon Formby?

DART fought the release of the complaint forms, telling the state attorney general in a letter, “The release of the complaints to the general public is of no legitimate concern to the public.”

I beg to differ, and when you read my sampling, you’ll see why.

As Benning previously reported, MV Transportation, which relocated its corporate headquarters to Dallas, paid $238,000 in penalties to DART for program flaws.

MV Transportation released a statement in the name of chief executive R. Carter Pate saying that DART and his company review complaints every week.

“We continue to make progress every month in the passenger complaint area,” the statement said. Company officials declined to sit with me for an interview.

DART said the complaints are raw information taken by dispatchers and have not been verified.

 

Under paratransit rules, disabled riders, some who use wheelchairs or require vehicle lifts, are certified to travel in scheduled trips in vans and taxis for a $3 fee. The service gives 2,500 rides a day and serves 11,000 riders.

Comments in the forms I received are summaries taken by DART customer service representatives about the callers’ laments. Here, in their own words, are samples of what they say:

“Client’s mother states the van was covered in ants. Caller states her daughter has lots of bites.”

“The driver was distracted. Client states the driver kept asking her for her telephone number and asking for a date. Client states she doesn’t want this driver to pick her up anymore.”

“Mother states that her son is in vehicle for over three hours.”

“The operator ran two stop signs in Garland.”

“Driver had their pants unzipped and the client feels that the driver looked dirty, sloppy and crazy.”

“The bus did not show.”

“Driver on his cell phone.”

“Vehicle ran out of gas.”

“Customer rode the paratransit vehicle for about three hours and never made it to his destination.”

“Customer was scheduled to be picked up at 12:37 and didn’t get picked up until three hours later.”

“Client states that operator asked her if she went to bed with all her boyfriends and continued to make comments on her body and made her feel very uncomfortable.”

“Operator was driving unsafe and client fell out of her seat. … Operator offered no assistance.”

“The destination was two miles away and instead was driven around for two hours due to overbooking.”

“The taxi was very overcrowded. About six people. Client states she called dispatch and was placed on hold for 30 minutes.”

“Driver stated, ‘I do not get enough money to help you get into the cab.’ Husband’s blood pressure went up to 200.”

“Driver was speeding over bumps and would not respond to her when she asked him to slow down because she has a bad back. Customer states driver was very rude and was driving very reckless while talking on the phone the whole time.”

“Operator arrived at location with pants sagging and appeared to be drunk. … Operator drove over cones in main entrance driveway and drove over speed bumps speeding.”

Doug Douglas, a DART vice president, says paratransit drivers have taken two mandatory “refresher” courses since MV Transportation won the contract with a bid of $186 million for seven years.

“Things are getting better every day,” he says. “We have not had any regression. The complaints you have are raw. They have not been validated. We have commendations regarding service as well.”

To be fair, I found this in the stack of a thousand pages: “Driver very kind. Helps customer with lift. He pulled the strap behind customer and secured her. Very timely. Customer got to church in good time. He is real nice.”

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The Watchdog: Owner of the Shutter Factory of Plano wanted in theft

William Clifton Wallace Jr., where are you?

You are magical when it comes to disappearing.

You ran the Shutter Factory for years in Plano, selling shutters, draperies and curtains. You did fine work. “A lifetime of beauty,” your business cards promised. But your business went south a couple of years ago, and it officially closed in early 2012.

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Yet there you were, continuing to behave as if the business existed. You went to people’s houses, measured windows, showed samples, wrote invoices and collected 50 percent deposits.

You collected thousands of dollars in deposits, but then you disappeared. Nobody could find you. Nothing was delivered.

When negative online reviews about your behavior showed up on consumer websites warning others to stay away, a spate of positive comments from fake customers touting your honesty and your expertise appeared.

In February, Collin County authorities issued a warrant for your arrest on theft charges, and you disappeared for good. You lost your Allen home in a foreclosure. Your phone numbers don’t work. You’re 56 years old and in hiding.

Thank you to Mary and Bobby Stark of Dallas for telling The Watchdog about you. They had hired you before in 2008, and you did good work. In June 2012, four months after your state business license was forfeited, you answered their call for another estimate. The Starks paid you $4,400 in a half-deposit. You cashed the check at a Plano convenience store. Then you pulled your disappearing act.

“If there’s anything you can do to help us, it would be so wonderful and so much appreciated,” Mary Stark told The Watchdog. “We worked so very long to save up the money for these shutters, and it just seems that something should be done about this.”

I asked my Watchdog desk associate, Marina Trahan Martinez, to research your legal status. Turns out to be quite a mystery.

Wallace, you’re a wanted man, but authorities are not allowed to say that on the record. The only notice of pending criminal theft charges against you is a brief mention in a Collin County active warrant list. A warrant was issued for your arrest on Feb. 11. The rest of the case against you is sealed. Texas law says that in certain cases, charges cannot be discussed until a suspect is in custody.

I know for sure the case against you is not the Starks’ case. They say they went to the police to complain, but no one ever followed up. So the case involves another customer or customers.

The Starks’ case is for the largest amount of lost funds I could find online. Other customers complain of losing $1,000 or less.

One complainant on the Better Business Bureau website says he lost $427. “He told us the shutters would be installed in six weeks. I have left a number of phone calls and none have been returned. Now you just get a busy signal when you call.”

On another website, a customer writes, “They took my money when they took 50 percent down. … I have been trying for over three months to get my promised shutters for my home.”

At the same time, consumer websites that had negative reviews were flooded with positive comments. In some cases, a batch would be posted on the same day, a possible sign of fakery.

“The job took a little longer than expected but they were over the top with their customer service and did it with a smile,” one writes.

“Bill was very punctual, very knowledgeable and extremely professional,” another writes.

“Bill, it has been a pleasure doing this project with you, and I wish you and your company every success in the future,” goes another.

What future?

The only Shutter Factory business in Texas that has a future, apparently, is the other Shutter Factory owned by Chuck and Sammie Downey in Kerrville. That business has nothing in common except the name.

Even Chuck says he started getting calls for you last year. “People were wanting their money,” Chuck says. “We told them, ‘We’re not him.’”

“A lot of people have been burned by him,” Bobby Stark says.

That’s why I’m taking the rare action of issuing a Watchdog Nation all points bulletin to anyone within eyeshot of this column.

William Clifton Wallace Jr., where are you?

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