Watchdog Nation goes on TV to warn about crooked repairman

You know what would suck? You’re a crooked appliance repairman who advertises on Craigslist.

Then some guy goes on TV, shows your face and warns everyone about you.

That’s what happens here.

The story of Dallas Morning News Watchdog Dave Lieber and convicted thief Michael Stoneham.

Read the full story here in The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column.

Here’s the ad he has used:

michael craiglist ad

 

Michael W. Stoneham

Michael W. Stoneham

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Do a quick background check before workers enter your house

When I told Barry Boardman that the appliance repairman he let into his house to fix his refrigerator, the one who took his $175 deposit check and never returned, had a criminal record for theft, everything suddenly made sense to him.

Mugshot of refrigerator repairman Michael Stoneham

All summer, he kept calling Michael Stoneham asking for a refund of his deposit since he never got the new motor Stoneham promised.

“He kept giving me excuses,” Boardman recalls. He said Stoneham claimed he got in a car accident, and his brakes weren’t fixed right.

Then he said the check was in the mail. Then he stopped answering his phone.

“He just hangs up. He’s hoping I’ll let it go and stop calling.”

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Boardman, of Fort Worth, wrote me, “I know this is a small case compared to other letters you get. I am at a loss about how to get my money back or keep other people from having the same problem with this company.”

To me, it’s not only the money; it’s about the idea that any appliance repairman could so easily fall short on doing his job — and get away with it. Years ago, a repairman who repaired correctly and was paid an honest dollar was the rule. Today, you don’t know who is walking in your front door.

The Watchdog can’t get Boardman his money back. Stoneham declined to talk to me when I reached him by telephone. But by looking at how this happened and what consumers can do to protect themselves, Boardman may get his second wish: keep other people from having the same problem.

Step by step

Boardman picked Stoneham and his company, Pro-Tech Appliance Repair, out of the Yellow Pages. He had hired him once before, and the job had gone well. But in these trying times, some businesses that once were successful now cut corners to stay afloat. Sadly, the Yellow Pages are no longer a credible source on their own. But that’s OK. Thanks to the Internet, I learned in a matter of minutes what I needed to know.

First, I checked the Better Business Bureau and saw that Stoneham’s business had an F rating for “failure to respond to two complaints filed against business.”

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I found his company address on a business directory site on the Internet. Usually, when a business has a physical address, that’s a good sign. Then I went to the Tarrant Appraisal District website (tad.org) and looked up the owner of the property. After typing the landlord’s name into my favorite Internet reverse telephone directory (anywho.com), I found his phone number.

Called the landlord and asked for a reference on Stoneham, his tenant. The landlord said, “He hasn’t been there for the last four or five months. He broke his lease. He was always late paying. He owes at least the last month.”

Then I went to another of my favorite websites, publicdata.com ($30 annual subscription fee), and found his driver’s license number. With that, I knew his birth date. He’s 53. With that, I could search the criminal database on publicdata.com, which showed a 2005 conviction for theft that resulted in probation.

Internet searches are not always reliable, so I double-checked with the Dallas County Criminal Courts database (free), which verified the conviction.

Confirmed it all with a neat app on my iPhone called Texas Criminal Record Search (99 cents), which needs only a name and a date of birth. Stoneham’s conviction came up there, too.

I shared this with Boardman, then showed him a photo of Stoneham I found on the BustedMugshots.com website. When Boardman saw the police mug shot, he said, “It’s scary looking at that mug shot and thinking I invited him in my house and handed him a check.”

That’s another thing. Never pay repair techs before the work is completed. (We all learn the hard way.)

One problem is that in Texas, appliance repair techs (unlike plumbers and heating/air conditioning techs) are not required to have a license, enroll in continuing education classes or undergo a background check.

“The state of Texas doesn’t require any kind of background check?” Boardman asked. “That’s unnerving.”

Of course, if your particular state licenses repair workers, then that’s probably the only call or website search you need to check.

But remember, no matter where you live, there are plenty of places now available online, many of them free, that offer information in seconds that you’ll want to know.

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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 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber 

 

 

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.

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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.