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.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, now available on Kindle

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.