Undercover heating investigation exposes tactics to make money - CBS46 News

Undercover heating investigation exposes tactics to make money

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CBS Atlanta News is testing heating and air conditioning companies to expose the tricks they sometimes use to get you to pay more money. From the up sells, to mistakes and even threats against customers who complain, Chief Investigative Reporter Wendy Saltzman is asking the Tough Questions about the costly sales tactics you could face when calling for help.

CBS Atlanta Investigates contacted four companies for a general check-up on a heater that worked perfectly. One company did great, but the others recommended repairs ranging from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars for what our experts said were completely unnecessary repairs.

CBS Atlanta News installed hidden cameras in a home where the heater was located to document each sales pitch. Then we had our heater inspected by an expert, Staton Conditioned Air, who has a complaint-free history with the Better Business Bureau.

"Nothing obvious needs to be replaced," said the expert from Staton Conditioned Air, giving the heater a clean bill of health.

Next, Saltzman called four companies to look at the heater.  Three of the four companies that checked the heater upsold unnecessary repair costs.

One of the companies to upsell was Bardi Heating and Air.

"The power will come to it, to come on, it will not come on, but the gas will still seep out," a Bardi technician told Saltzman during the hidden camera investigation.

"That doesn't sound good," Saltzman said.

"No it doesn't. Whenever it gets like that, the gas will keep coming. And if the gas builds up, you know what's going to happen. So we don't want that," the Bardi technician said.

Bardi Heating and Air upsold the heater repair costs by $264 for a hot surface igniter, which experts from Staton Conditioned Air said weren't needed.

When Saltzman asked Bardi Service Manager Gresham Ard if using fear tactics was an accurate way to portray the technician's inspection of the heater, he said it was not.

Ard came back to the home to check out the heater, and he admitted his technician made a mistake.

"He was in error in recommending, based on the resistance to replace it," Ard said.

The next call was to Chuck Maddox at Maddox Comfort Systems.  Maddox misdiagnosed the dual-fuel heater and said it wasn't working properly. He recommended replacing the control board and a new thermostat.

 "I'm gonna say $300 for the thermostat," Maddox said. The control board cost an additional $350.

After Saltzman contacted Maddox and told him about the undercover investigation, Maddox refunded the $90 cost of the service call, but didn't want to be interviewed on camera.

The most expensive upsell was made by Mechanics Heating and Air Conditioning in Marietta. They recommended more than a thousand dollars of repairs that once again, Stanton Conditioned Air experts said weren't needed.

"When these start to go bad they just explode and stop working," the Mechanics technician said about the heater's air conditioner capacitor. "I recommend the booster, it is extra protection," he said.

The technician also suggested a refrigerant top-off, to fix what he claimed was a leak.

"It isn't a huge leak, it's a microscopic leak," the Mechanics technician said.

Mechanics also recommended cleaning the heater's air conditioning coils and cleaning the flame sensor. The flame sensor cleaning is a service that takes about two minutes, which another company did for free, but Mechanics charged $79 for it.

Mechanics' biggest sales pitch was a duct cleaning for $875, padding the bill for more than $1,400.

"If you get everything done, we will give you half off the entire job," the technician explained during the hidden camera investigation.

CBS Atlanta News spoke to a former Mechanics Heating and Air Conditioning customer Erma McGehee, who said the company tries to unfairly charge customers.

"They will charge you a fortune, and then they will try to wring you for every dime they can get out of you," McGehee said.

McGehee had a contract with Mechanics Heating and Air for regular service, twice a year, for several years.

"Beware of this company," she said.

McGehee said each time a technician came to inspect her heater, they tried to sell her on unnecessary repairs.

"(The heater was) working perfectly," McGehee said.  "Until they left. When they left, the temperature in the house dropped."

The last straw was when McGehee said she refused to pay for repairs, and suddenly her heater stopped working.

"I feel like I have been taken advantage of," she said.

McGehee is just one of dozens and dozens of unsatisfied customers who filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau against Mechanics.

When Saltzman tried to confront an office manager at Mechanics about the complaints, she wouldn't respond.

Fred Elseberry, President of the Metro Atlanta Better Business Bureau, said he thought Mechanics tried to capitalize on their reputation.

"I think they take pride in kind of being a bully," he said.

When CBS Atlanta News launched an investigation into Mechanics, we were met with the same hostility as many dissatisfied customers.

After calling the Mechanics' compound in Marietta twice without a response, Saltzman went to check things out in person.  But the building was locked and flanked with security cameras. Employees wouldn't open the door, but they did call the cops.

Mechanics also sent Saltzman intimidating e-mails, threatening to publish her home address and create a website like others they have created to retaliate against customers by making humiliating and personal attacks.

"They actually have several websites that actually degrade some of the customers who have filed complaints against them," Elsberry said.

Elsberry is also one of Mechanics' targets. Mechanics created a website using him name as a domain name, and publishing personal information about his life.

"I am always surprised people are still doing business with them, quite frankly," Elsberry said.

And other customers like McGehee said they were threatened not to report Mechanics questionable tricks.

"He said, ‘I will sue you if you file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. I will sue you,'" McGehee said.

McGehee filed a complaint anyway.

"Why do y'all threaten customers who makes complaints against Mechanics?" Saltzman asked the office manager.

"Please stop talking to me," she replied.

The owners of Mechanics refused to talk to CBS Atlanta News, but did send Saltzman two written responses, which you can read here and here.

The company who did the best job was Estes Heating and Air. They spent time and completely cleaned our heater and made no bogus recommendations. The cleaning and service was all included in their basic call fee.

Copyright 2012 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation).  All rights reserved.