State’s consumer watchdogs also have advice for consumers who need furnace and other repairs
SEATTLE – Last year, Gordon Bradford received unwelcome news during a yearly furnace inspection. A technician from Dick’s Heating and Air Conditioning said a heat exchanger hole made the furnace unsafe. Replacing the part, said the technician, would cost more than a new furnace. After spending $5,000 on a new machine, Bradford examined the old one. He didn’t find any holes on the heat exchanger.
“We feel that this is [a] scare tactic type of salesmanship, along with deceptive practices to sell products,” Bradford wrote in a complaint to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
A couple from Graham also complained to the AG’s Office after a Dick’s technician charged $231 to spray a small can of nitrogen into a clogged tube in their heating and cooling system – a job that took less than 15 minutes. They weren’t told beforehand what the cost of the job would be. When the couple questioned the charge, they were told Dick’s charges a flat rate, regardless of how quickly a job can be done.
“We feel we have been greatly overcharged for the service performed and Dick’s simply will not acknowledge the fact they did not present the cost to us before the work was done,” the couple wrote to the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
Assistant Attorney General, Sarah Shifley, examined the complaints and found common themes. “Dick’s Heating and Air Conditioning failed to get consumers’ permission before doing work and demanding payment,” she says. “Dick’s also made deceptive claims about its prices, saying that its pricing structure resulted in lower prices, when in fact it charged more than competitors.”
Shifley also uncovered another disturbing practice: charging for replacement parts still under warranty. After some jobs, Dick’s would contact parts manufacturers, collect money – and keep it – for warranty-covered parts.
All told, the Attorney General’s Office received 52 complaints about Dick’s. The Better Business Bureau received 29. An investigation by the Attorney General’s Office today resulted in a consent decree — a settlement — today sent for filing in King County Superior Court.
In the settlement, Dick’s agrees to halt several practices called “unfair and deceptive” under the state’s Consumer Protection Act. Among other practices, Dick’s will stop:
- Misrepresenting technician certifications, training or experience.
- Failing to clearly disclose the limitations of satisfaction guarantees.
- Failing to disclose, prior to sale, all potential restocking costs and fees.
- Failing to disclose the price of goods and services to be rendered, except where the price is identified as an estimate.
- Distributing advertising or promotional information that misrepresents the health and safety risks and benefits of their services or products such as duct cleaning, including making unsubstantiated claims as to the health or safety benefits of services or products.
- Misrepresenting in advertising the value or cost of services and products (for example “save money with up flat-rate pricing”), unless such statements have are backed up by facts.
Dick’s will also pay $33,295 in attorney’s costs and fees and $8,000 in penalties. If the defendants fail to follow the deal’s terms, they face a penalty of up to $25,000 per violation.
Advice for consumers
As temperatures drop and furnaces begin to fail, Shifley has advice for anyone looking into repairs or replacements of heating, cooling, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. “Shop around instead of going with the first company you find,” she says. “Demand estimates in writing and don’t let work begin until you are crystal clear about how much it will cost. Don’t assume that companies that price by the job instead of by the hour are always less expensive. Also, ask if any parts that need to be replaced are under warranty. If not, you can require that the old parts be left with you.”
Shifley also suggests consumers pass on this advice to older parents or grandparents. Seniors are more likely to be taken advantage of by shady companies or technicians, HVAC and otherwise.
She also has advice about air duct cleaning, which is sometimes provided by HVAC servicers. “You should also be skeptical about health-related claims about air duct cleaning, whether it’s done by an HVAC company or one that specializes in air duct cleaning. Don’t hire duct cleaners who make sweeping claims about the health benefits of their services or recommended duct cleaning as a routine part of your heating and cooling system maintenance. Finally, check out references and reviews, and consider getting a second opinion before hiring anybody.”
Janelle Guthrie, Director of Communications, (360) 586-0725