Homeadvisor estimates that American’s lose $1.4 Billion in-home service scams. What’s worse is this number is increasing every year. We’ve exposed 8 common plumbing and air conditioning repair scams and can help show you how to avoid them.
If you’ve already been the victim of a home service scam, the best-case scenario is that you’ve spent hundreds of dollars unnecessarily. The worst-case scenario though is that you’ve spent a lot of money and you still need to make major home repairs. These scams range from lying about documentation to directly ripping off homeowners.
How to Identify a Scam
Sometimes we can’t tell the difference between the upstanding professional and the scammer. To identify a scam, start by asking a lot of questions. Ask for estimates, lists of materials they intend to use, proof of insurance, licensing information and very detailed contracts. Any licensed professional should provide all of these without issue.
But, many homeowners feel that they’re rude if they start demanding proof of qualification and transparent estimates. We all want to be polite, but if you are choosing to avoid these important questions, you’re an easy target for scammers.
Take the chance of being a little rude; it’s best to avoid any plumber or HVAC technician who gets offended because you’re asking for licensing information or receipts.
The “Freon Refill” Scam
Throughout most parts of the country, you need an air conditioner in the summer. Now if you’ve already purchased an air conditioning unit you might think the hard part is over. However, air conditioners need occasional maintenance, and some a/c repairmen see this as an opportunity to rip off homeowners.
In this scam the technician gives you the best news a homeowner with a/c problems could hope for: your unit only needs more refrigerant. But, that is only the beginning of your problems. The technician is hoping that in 2 or 3 months, you will need another refill.
But in truth, your unit needs repairs because it probably leaks. It might be better to say that your unit needing Freon but not repairs is impossible.
An air conditioning unit that works decently should maintain its level of Freon, and not need any additional refrigerant. One of the few reasons that an a/c unit would lose refrigerant is because of a leak. But technicians like this scam because they can charge a lot for Freon (it is expensive), and they don’t have to dedicate any time to your unit. As a bonus, these technicians rely on you calling for a refill in a few months.
How to Avoid It
If any technician says, you only need a refill on refrigerant, politely ask them to leave. Then when you’re speaking with another company, inform them someone’s already tried to pull that scam on you. The bigger issue here isn’t that it is illegal for a technician to refill refrigerant knowing the unit leaks.
The “Of Course I’m a Professional” Scam
There are two variations on this scam. The first is an unlicensed person posing as a working professional offers you moderately low rates and makes the repairs. However, these repairs or the parts they used don’t last for long. Then when you try to call them again or use the warranty on the part, you’re out of luck, and they’re gone.
The second spin on this scam is that an unlicensed person is posing as an employee from a well-known, usually local, company. They come up to your door, offer you discounts on their standard services and you gladly hire them. The result is the same as before, inferior work that falls apart shortly after your technician is out the door. Then the company has never heard of them, and you have no warranty on your parts.
Another risk to this scam is that the person could sustain, or cause, injury because of the repairs they’re doing. Anyone who doesn’t know what their doing can cause serious harm, to themselves and the people living in the home.
How to Avoid It
Always ask for documentation of certification. It might seem rude, but if someone is working freelance, they should expect to provide proof of their ability to make the repairs they’re offering. Now, if someone from a company has come to your door, avoiding this scam is as easy as calling their office.
Contact the company’s office and ask if you can make an appointment with the person who came to your door today. If they don’t have representatives making door-to-door sales, you’ve alerted them that someone is using their company as a front for a scam.
You can always ask for:
- Proof of licensing
- Proof of certifications
- Proof of insurance
- Company I.D.
These 4 pieces of documentation can put any homeowners mind at ease that they’re hiring a licensed professional.
The “Replace Everything or Buy New” Scam
The scenario here is that you call a well-known repair service and they send out a tech. This technician quickly informs you that the unit isn’t worth the parts it needs, and you’re better off replacing it. There are 2 outcomes to this scam.
Either, you negotiate and begin replacing parts on a schedule you can afford, or you purchase a new unit unnecessarily. This scam can cost you thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, these people are often licensed and working for legitimate companies which makes them hard to scope out. But, these technicians typically work on commission. They try to sell as many parts or the biggest unit they can to bump up their paycheck.
How to Avoid It
Before you hire someone, who claims you need either a ton of work or a full replacement unit, call around. Let this person know you’ll get back to them. Then have 2 or 3 other companies come out and give you a quote.
The “I Only Use the Best” Scam
The “I only use the best” scam is a simple bait and switch operation. The plumber claims to use only the highest-grade materials that will last for decades but instead uses the bottom of the barrel piping and tubing.
A plumber is only as good as their materials, which is why many plumbers lie about what they use. It’s an easy scam because most homeowners don’t know the difference between high-quality PEX piping from low-quality piping.
You’ll know the difference though when your plumbing breaks in a few months and your repairman is impossible to find.
How to Avoid It
Because this scam is so common and so difficult to identify, it’s important to monitor the materials list before the plumber is gone forever. Before your plumber begins buying materials ask for a list of the parts they intend to use.
After you have the materials list, head over to your local hardware store and ask an associate for help. Price out the items yourself and determine if you’re plumber provided a reasonable quote.
Remember though that the prices are different for you at your local hardware store. Use a bit of estimation and reasoning when deciding if your plumber uses parts to overcharge. If your plumber is hiking up their prices, call them on it and don’t hire them.
But, even if you go and price the materials out yourself, the plumber can still get away with it. You can take the invoice from the job and match the materials in a home improvement store. Although matching piping and tubing is difficult for the untrained eye, it’s better to try than to accept whatever the plumber used in your walls or under your sink.
The “Over Eager” Scam
The “over eager” scam isn’t as simple as the other scams we’ve uncovered. This scam relies on a series of events, but it’s also the easiest to stop.
Initially, you get something in writing that’s a blend of legal jargon mixed with several confusing home service repair terms. But, either way, you sign the contract, and suddenly your home is host to a hoard of repairmen. Where did all these people come from and what are they doing?
Then, you’re left with a huge bill. This bill is way over your original estimate, and you don’t know why. What has the plumber done, and it is even legal?
Unfortunately, these situations happen all the time, and there’s nothing illegal about it as long you authorized subcontracts in your estimate. The plumber claims they needed some extra help and can’t control the other rates.
How to Avoid It
First, discuss the possibilities of subcontracted labor before hiring a plumber. Make it clear that you won’t permit any rates higher than what you’ve agreed to regardless of who’s rate it is. But, if you notice a lot of people in your home after you’ve made your expectations clear, start asking questions.
Always ask how every person contributes to the job and insist that anyone unnecessary leave immediately. Remember you’re the homeowner and you can stop the work immediately. If you believe you’re in the midst of a scam, call for a quote from another company.
The “Revolving Door Rates” Scam
This scam targets people who are living in affluent neighborhoods. If you have a nice car in the driveway, a flat screen mounted in the living room, or a pool in the backyard the contractor will assume they can take advantage.
Freelance contractors that offer plumbing or air conditioning repairs aren’t required to keep set rates. A contractor can hike up their rates substantially sometimes even doubling them. It’s not fair.
How to Avoid It
You can easily avoid any scam that involves revolving door rates. Have at least 3 quotes done on the job before hiring.
Hiring someone always seems like an urgent matter, and many homeowners feel that they must hire someone right away. Ask for estimates of both materials and labor. There are several resources to help you weed out the repairmen with a history of revolving door rates. The BBB is a great resource to find reputable contractors.
The Contractor Who Hypes Up Their Work
Okay, this scam is easy to identify, but most of us fall for it at some time or another. You notice something is wrong with your home and call someone to come in for a quote.
The contractor comes back after checking on the problem for less than 5 minutes and insists they need to do work now. Then the contractor says that the issue is life-threatening. An urgent leak or an appliance that’s about blow will have nearly any homeowner hiring right away. But, after you hire them under the urgent premise, you receive an astronomically high bill.
But if you start asking questions about this outrageous bill, the plumber or air conditioning repairman starts listing off a ton of repairs. Most homeowners don’t understand a lot of the technical jargon, and when contractors start using it, most people just agree and pay the bill.
It’s important to know that although appliances can cause life-threatening issues without adequate repair, these cases are rare. If you hire a contractor who starts out with the “saved your life” approach, it’s only going to get worse.
How to Avoid It
Always ask for a detailed list of repairs in an estimate before hiring, even if they claim the issue is life-threatening. Don’t be afraid to call companies for other quotes either.
Usually, if you inform a company that a plumber or air conditioning repairman said that without an immediate repair the issue is life threatening they’ll offer faster service. Quality companies are interested in your safety and help you avoid scams.
Keep in mind that many trustworthy plumbers or air conditioning repairmen offer free estimates. More estimates shouldn’t cost you anything but time.
The “I Only Take Upfront Payments” Scam
This scam is straight to the point; the repairman asks for payment before completion of the job. Usually in a sly, “Okay, so let’s run your card and then we’ll get started” manner. The upfront payments scam is where people lose the most money.
After you make a payment, there’s no guarantee that this person is ever going to show up again. They have their money, so why waste time on the repair?
Okay, many contractors for both plumbing and air conditioning repair require some deposit. A deposit can help them know that you’re just as committed to their repair as they are. It also helps them begin work by purchasing expensive parts.
There is a big difference between a deposit and making the payment upfront.
How to Avoid It
Refuse to make payments before the work is complete, and always ask why a deposit is necessary. If your contractor asks for a deposit, request an explanation of why. For some companies, it’s standard procedure. In other cases, your unit may need an expensive part they need to purchase before repairs.
How to Steer Clear of Scams in the Future
Home service scams are difficult to avoid in some cases. But the scams that cost you the most money are avoidable with nothing but a stern “no.”
Remember also that getting estimates from multiple companies shouldn’t cost you anything. Multiple quotes will help you determine a fair price, and which repairs are necessary. Always go with the repairman who is transparent about the costs, materials, and required labor.