Chasing after bad appliance repair techs is a lonely job

Repair

I have a problem with appliance repairmen who take the money and run. I like to chase these guys across Texas.

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, something about a guy showing up at your house to fix a refrigerator or dryer, taking money for a service call along with a deposit for parts and then not returning bugs the life out of me.

Several years ago, customer Barry Boardman wanted help getting his $175 deposit back. Took me five minutes to learn his repairman had a prior conviction for theft in Dallas County. Showed Boardman his repairman’s police mug shot. Ouch.

Before that, I hunted for Brian Littlefield, a longtime repairman who skipped out on a legal secretary with a broken icebox. Always the same with these guys. “Oh, you need me back. Sure, I’ll be right over.” But nothing. Then they never return your call.

For that guy, I placed a public call to my Watchdog Nation Posse. (If you’re reading this, you’re a member!) Help me find Littlefield, I asked. People told me how Littlefield pulled the same stunt on them. Turns out he had nine judgments against him. He filed four bankruptcies. All those unfinished bankruptcies helped him avoid eight apartment evictions. Then somebody — I’ll never say who — told me he was hiding out in East Texas.

When I reached Littlefield by phone, he explained it wasn’t his fault that he skipped out on customers. People are rude.

“They are yelling and screaming and being hostile on the answering machine. I have a policy: If someone is hostile, I will not call them back.”

“Why do you think they are hostile?” I asked him.

“I’m not sure.”

A few weeks ago, Gorgonio Pena of Carrollton told me about his refrigerator repair saga. Same old story.

Pena, a volunteer minister, takes his old motor home on the road and hosts Bible retreats. But he didn’t get to go anywhere this summer, not after he gave a repairman $200 to fix his motor home’s refrigerator. The repairman not only skipped town, the dude moved to Alaska. (I never heard that one before.) That was three months ago.

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Fortunately, the repairman was a subcontractor for Accurate Appliance Repair in Garland. The Watchdog contacted company owner Ella Watson.

After she heard from me, Watson wrote Pena a note: “I truly apologize about the issue with your part. I have tried and tried and will continue to try to locate this part for you again. Before David left for Alaska, he told me he would get the part by the weekend. …

“I will have your part next day aired at my expense and schedule a return to complete this repair. Again, I truly apologize for this terrible inconvenience. I am still working on this for you, sir. May God bless you and may He also help us get this issue resolved.”

Wow. You think Brian Littlefield or his brethren ever wrote a sweet note like that?

Watson presents the problem in a candid way. The appliance repair business, she said, attracts “shady characters.”

She owned a Rowlett appliance store for 20 years. Now she runs a repair business from her Garland home. She hires repairmen to work for her.

“I’m always having trouble finding good workers. Now that David went back to Alaska, I’m in the process of looking for somebody.”

With jobs scarce, new people come into the business. “Right now everybody in the world is doing it because they’re out of work,” she says. “It’s easy to con somebody. I hear people all the time say, ‘They took my money and changed their phone number.’”

Anyone can open a repair business by placing ads in the Yellow Pages or on Craigslist and by creating a website. That’s it. In Texas, appliance repair techs don’t get licensed (like plumbers) or registered (like heating/air conditioning techs). Appliance repair techs don’t take required continuing education classes or pass a criminal background check. That’s why it’s risky to hire someone based solely on their ad.

Watson says old machines are sometimes hard to fix, but customers are difficult to deal with, too. There are stories on the Internet about how she let a few customers down. She’s tired when she talks of it. She’s 59, a grandmother of nine. “This is a mean, ugly world,” she says.

I credit Pena with perseverance. He kept calling Watson. She kept putting him off. Enough of that. Finally, I convinced them both to call it a day.

Forget about the part. The deposit is lost. How about giving the man of God his refund? Watson said she would. Pena says he might buy a new refrigerator. The motor home minister wants to hit the road again. After all these months, the divine intervention needed to find that missing part isn’t working.

This first appeared in The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column. Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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IN THE KNOW / Hiring an appliance repair technician

• Consider getting bids. Ask if there’s a service charge for a call, and if that’s included in future repair costs. Ask friends and family for referrals of reputable techs.

• Check the company name through the Better Business Bureau website and also by doing an Internet search with the company’s name and the words “scam” and “ripoff.”

• Consider doing a background check on anyone that enters your home. Get a full name and date of birth to use on various Internet databases or public court records. Look for a criminal record.

• Get a written estimate that includes the length of any warranties. Does the paperwork include the repair tech’s name, phone and physical street address?

• Don’t pay for work not done. If a tech wants a down payment for a part, ask to see his driver’s license for backup. Copy the information, or better, take a photo.

• Trust your instincts. Does everything sound right?

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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Craigslist is free, but you may get what you pay for

Jeff May lives and dies by Craigslist, the mostly free classified ad website. He buys. He sells. He buys. He sells.

Not every deal works out perfectly. That’s part of the risk and thrill of Craigslist. The bad comes with the good.

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

May likes to home brew beer. The Arlington, Texas man recently bought through Craigslist a 20-year-old Montgomery Ward chest freezer. He modified it to hold several kegs. He installed beer taps and decorated the chest. When he concocts a new batch, he invites neighbors to his garage for a sample.




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Jeff May's unique freezer




After a few months, though, the freezer died. May went back to Craigslist and looked under Household Services. He found an ad for Accurate Appliance Repair in Garland: “We are Ready to Help YOU Get Your Appliances Working RIGHT Again! … Operators Are Standing By To Answer Your Parts & Service Calls NOW.”

He called and talked to Ella Watson, the owner. For 20 years, she and her husband owned a Rowlett repair shop with the same name, but he died. Now she runs what she calls “a one-girl office” out of her home.

Operators standing by? She’s the operator.

Watson told me she sent a repair tech to visit May.

According to May, the tech took a quick look and declared that a power surge had fried the electronics. The tech said he could fix it, and May OK’d the job. The tech did some work, and May paid him $322. When the repairman left, the chest was on. Hours later, though, the temperature had not dropped to the desired 40 degrees.

May called Watson repeatedly. He wanted the work redone under her warranty. Appointments were made. But May said the tech failed to show, and Watson says May wasn’t home when the tech came.

After a while, Watson stopped answering his calls. She told me later that, as the lone operator, she juggles several phones at once, taking calls and sending out techs who work for her on jobs. “Things might slip by,” she said.

May checked the company’s rating on the Better Business Bureau and found an F with six unanswered complaints. He also complained to the BBB.

Then he started posting notes about Accurate Appliance Repair’s service on Craigslist to scare away Watson’s customers. He’s clear about his mission: “I’ll take out some of my frustrations by trying to ruin their business. It was a revenge posting as much as anything else.”

“Word to the wise,” he writes in part. “Don’t hire Accurate Appliance Repair. … The freezer still isn’t working, and they have refused to honor their 90 day guarantee.” Then he reprinted the BBB report.

He has done that several times already. Then he was joined by another poster: A tech did not “clean up the dirty hand marks inside the refrigerator and put everything back. Also, he ended up doing other things that were totally unrelated to the problem and included that in the bill.”

Watson’s response: “I don’t respond to complaints on Craigslist because I don’t think that would be a good thing. I can’t please everybody. I believe 99.9 percent of our customers are satisfied.”

Watson said she will give May back half his money.

“This is not a very nice man,” she said. His appliance is unusual, she said, and she doesn’t believe it can be fixed.

May says he got a repair estimate for $1,000 from an electrician. He’s not upset that Watson’s company can’t fix it. He says he’s upset that the tech said he could, took the money and didn’t do the job.

Last week, Watson contacted the BBB to fix the six unresolved complaints.

She told me she doesn’t know whether advertising on Craigslist is worth the trouble. At least half the customers she gets that way don’t want to pay, she said.

Surprise. A free service attracts freeloaders.

Craigslist did not respond to my request for an interview.

But The Watchdog has a few ideas about how to post effectively on websites when a service or product is not to your liking.

Don’t call your subject names. Stick to the facts of the situation. You don’t need to make legal troubles for yourself.

Explain that you paid the company to perform a certain service but that it wasn’t done properly. The company won’t honor its warranty. Won’t return calls. Won’t make right on what was originally promised to you.

Explain that you paid for nothing. Be as specific as possible. Facts are always better than emotion, though emotions, as May’s case shows, often run high.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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