Are Your Contractors Scammers?

Aug. 1, 2012
For an editorial, now that's an inflammatory headline. But last month, NBC's The Today Show, usually the most-watched morning program in America, aired

For an editorial, now that's an inflammatory headline. But last month, NBC's The Today Show, usually the most-watched morning program in America, aired a sting operation targeting HVACR contractors in northern New Jersey.

The show rented a home and made calls to six different HVACR companies, telling them that they had a problem. The “problem” was a cut wire, created under the supervision of three experts and with the cooperation of ACCA. The ACCA team and the show's staff were ensconced in the basement with a panel of closed circuit cameras, capturing the conduct of the contractors. I immediately recognized two of the three experts. One was Bobby Ring, whom I know slightly. He is president of the HVACR firm Meyer & Depew and the 2012-2013 senior vice chairman of ACCA. The other expert I recognized was Warren Lupson, the educational director of AHRI, who has contributed to this magazine.

The technicians caught on film represented an outrageous failure for our industry. All six contractors either misrepresented or outright lied about the problem or solution. EVERYONE. As a group, they deserve an F-. What's even more shocking is that the standard advice to consumers about dealing with contractors failed, too. It's the tiresome “get three bids and then make a decision.” I guess in this instance, you could double the effort and you're still going to be ripped off.

While I live in southern New Jersey, I believe in the bell curve of honesty. I don't think northern New Jersey has any more or less dishonest (or honest) contractors than anywhere else.

Surprisingly, some contractors were angry, if not appalled, that ACCA participated in the sting. That's a shortsighted, emotional view that is dead wrong.

ACCA, Bobby Ring, Warren Lupson and those from our industry, in fact, took precisely the best possible action for a variety of reasons, which I will explain. The important point for wholesalers is that they may want to discuss not only the fallout from the show with their contractors but also explain how they can avoid the cloud of dishonesty ever floating over them. A starting point is to show the video at your next training session.

Let's be realistic. Sting operations and investigative journalism are uncommon. The last time there was a national show about HVAC contractors being dishonest on a job, according to my recollection, was more than five years ago in Houston.

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However, back to ACCA. Their action was the correct one, and I applaud them for it. Here's why. NBC was going to conduct this sting with or without ACCA. ACCA had a simple decision: Be the objective, fair-minded organization that has the expertise and honest contractor experts as the arbiter of what's right or dig your head into the sand, and allow that dark cloud of dishonesty to cover all contractors. If ACCA had said no, they were still subject to a possible interview request after the fact. (After all, they are the most prominent contractor organization in America.) Saying “no comment” to an interview often leaves a sense of guilt dangling in the air. Not allowing interview time after an incident usually implies a defensive stance.

NBC noted that viewers could go to their website and find a list of reputable organizations (yes, ACCA and NATE) to view certified and legitimate contractors.

Did the show have an effect? Here's what ACCA reported on their Facebook page: “We were prepared for a surge of website traffic from The Today Show report this morning - but the surge turned out to be much, much larger than even we expected. As a result our website is experiencing intermittent connection problems. We are working as fast as possible to get it running smoothly again. Thanks for your patience!”

While wholesalers should acknowledge to their contractors that real stings are rare, there's another kind of sting.

More Stings Coming Your Way, Courtesy of …

It's the personal sting. Hidden cameras in homes are proliferating. They're cheap and easy to install, and a consumer can put a camera in the area of your unit BEFORE the contractor arrives. They can watch the repair from afar, instead of standing over the tech (a practice most consumers refrain from), and demand to keep any broken parts. (In the NBC sting, one tech claimed the unit needed a part that didn't even exist on that model.) Expect more of this. And many of these cameras are so small, you won't really know it's there. In short, while the chances of your contractors being the subject of a media sting are very slight, you can bet that more contractors will perform their work under the eyes of a surveillance camera. Some advances in controls technology are already linking the HVAC system to a security network. How hard is it to install a camera for every room in the house? The future is here, and it means contractors will be working under the eyes of Big Brother.

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Wholesalers have some dishonest contractors in their midst. Sorry, but you do. If that offends you, then you're dismissing an aspect of basic negative human behavior. Remember, economists have been telling us for years that self-interest is a common driving trait. Note I didn't say the majority of your contractors were dishonest. I actually believe that most contractors who work with good wholesalers are honest and expect a fair, equitable reward for their efforts.

In your next training session with contractors, it might be wise to address the issue of honesty. A code of conduct and policy in dealing with customers makes a great deal of sense. Write it down and give it to potential customers. If contractors are afraid to put it in writing, well … then you don't mean it. (Did a contractor ever buy a business on only his word and a handshake?)

Also, remind your contractors that bad press, especially via social media, can devastate a company's reputation. And quickly. Since most contractors cover a self-defined territory, those bad reviews or negative articles can leave a permanent digital scar when someone types your name into a search engine. And often you won't even know WHY your business isn't growing. This does happen. I read an online review of a rental company in my area. Because the two complaints questioned the honesty and integrity of the company, I refused to do business with them. Had it been a service or clerical complaint, I might have overlooked it, but not when it comes to honesty.

You must view the sting video. It is available at It is an abject lesson in what not to do. I recommend you show it to your contractors. Then provide them with ACCA's checklist (issued in a national press release) so they can measure reliable and practical advice to consumers. It is available at:

A closing thought. It almost doesn't matter whether your contractors are honest or not. What matters is what the customer thinks. You should assist your contractors in conveying that not only do you have the most reliable, experienced technicians available but that you adhere to a code of ethics and honesty that employees follow. If you do this, you'll never fall prey to a sting, whether it's a media-sponsored one or a personal effort created by the customer with a hidden camera.

HVACR Distribution Business welcomes letters to the editor. Please send correspondence to: Tom Periæ, Editor, 2040 Fairfax Avenue, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; 856/874-0049; [email protected]