Air Conditioning Contractors Burn Homeowners
by Broderick Perkins
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Fraudulent air conditioner repair contractors making the rounds have become just as relentless as this summer's heat waves.
A timely undercover investigation of air conditioning repair contractors couldn't find a single honest repairman after a half dozen of them showed up, one by one, at a staged home on a televised sting of the swindlers.
Last week, after NBC's Today Show investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen set up hidden cameras in a rented house in New Jersey, every repairman they called tried to charge the make-believe mom for repairs the air conditioning unit didn't need.
Rossen along with Bobby Ring, a board of directors member of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and several certified air conditioning experts first verified the home's central air conditioning unit was in excellent working condition.
Then Rossen watched as Ring set up what he said was a common and easy-to-fix problem: a simple broken wire that shuts the unit down. The cost to repair it should have been less than $200.
The rest is hidden-camera history.
One contractor fixed the broken wire and the unit was working, but the contractor lied and said the air conditioning unit was leaking and would cost $692 to repair.
Another contractor tried to charge the "mom" $850 for several new unnecessary parts.
Still another contractor likewise tried to charge for unnecessary parts, including one that didn't even exist in the unit, for a total charge of $950.
"I was very disappointed by those contractors who did not seem to be doing the right thing. Overall, I think this segment was an important reminder to homeowners that they need to do their homework before they call a contractor," said Ring, president of Meyer & Depew Co., an HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) repair and installation company in Kenilworth, New Jersey.
He offers a "Behind the Scenes" account of the sting on his website.
ACCA, which develops and publishes the national standards used by professional contractors to ensure quality HVAC installation and maintenance, said the segment was an important reminder during an especially steamy summer.
"When choosing a contractor, it should not be about which company buys the most prominent search engine link, or has the flashiest website, or has the biggest Yellow Page ad," said Paul T. Stalknecht, ACCA President & CEO.
"While there are thousands of professional contractors who do outstanding service and care about their customers first, it is the homeowner's responsibility to find them, and that takes a little work," Stalknecht said.
...before the system fails.
A home owner is most vulnerable to fraud when a system fails in the middle of a heat wave and a homeowner doesn't already have a contractor relationship. At that point the home owner rarely sweats the extra steps necessary to find a trustworthy professional, Stalknecht said.
"Do it while your system is still working. Don't wait until you find yourself stranded in 100-degree heat, feeling pressured to make a decision quickly," Stalknecht said. "Find the right contracting business, and sign up for their maintenance agreement program," he added.
Regular maintenance, inspection and cleaning twice a year is recommended to keep HVAC systems in tip-top shape and help it live out a full lifetime. In the middle of the summer, especially during heatwaves the best contractors are likely busy taking care of their regular customers and may be delayed before they have time to visit your home. According to ACCA, the steps to finding the right contractor include:
Get referrals from family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others you trust who already have a solid working relationship with an HVAC contractor. Consider the help of screening services like Angie's List, Consumer's Checkbook, Diamond Certified and others.
Be sure the contractor employs North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certified technicians. NATE is the industry's baseline technician certification trade group.
If your state or city or other jurisdiction requires HVAC licensing, verify that the contractor is properly licensed. Each jurisdiction has different rules, unfortunately, so you will need to check with the appropriate agency. Also check with the Better Business Bureau and other complaint services to make sure a contractor doesn't have a string of complaints.
Verify that the company belongs to a reputable non-profit trade organization, like ACCA. Membership can demonstrate a commitment to ongoing education.
Ask the contractor to describe their employee training program. If they're not able to answer this question, they probably don't have one, and that's a red flag.
Verify that the contractor provides a regular maintenance or service agreement program.
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