$49 job became a 'horror story'

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2011 - 11:35 PM

Savage homeowner is one of many pursuing Illinois firm that was supposed to clean customers' air ducts.

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Audrey Westbrook, 73, of Savage, showed her furnace ducts. She hired a duct cleaning firm that allegedly defrauded customers in Illinois.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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On Feb. 14, Audrey Westbrook let two guys from Elite Air Duct Cleaning into her townhouse, expecting to pay them $49 to clean her 30-foot dryer vent. By the time they left, Westbrook had spent $507 for a furnace and duct cleaning that took about an hour and left behind strange-smelling chemicals in her basement.

Westbrook, who's 73 and lives in Savage, thinks she got scammed. But her efforts to do something about it went nowhere. Elite's phone was answered by someone who said the company's owners had recently left the country after selling the business. Her credit card company refused to reverse the charge. The Better Business Bureau mistakenly filed her complaint without doing anything.

Westbrook even contacted Valpak, the company that mailed Elite's $49 cleaning offer, but the company's Twin Cities franchise said it can't screen all advertisers to make sure they're legit.

"I was so frustrated that people can operate like that and no one cares," Westbrook said.

After Westbrook called Whistleblower, she learned Elite has many unhappy customers. The duct cleaning company, which also does business under the names Warranty USA and Air Duct Cleaning Pros, is the target of lawsuits by the Illinois attorney general and Cook County prosecutors. The company allegedly defrauded homeowners with phony claims that their ducts were infested with mold, performed shoddy or nonexistent work and inflated their fees. Illinois officials also are pursuing company owner Moshe Kesem.

The companies did not respond to several calls from Whistleblower.

For homeowners, duct cleaning is usually not necessary unless someone in your home suffers from unexplained allergies, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other factors that could justify a cleaning: a vermin infestation, visible signs of mold or dust billowing out of the vents.

Yet unscrupulous cleaning companies take advantage of fears that germs may lurk in a home's unseen recesses. Fraud is so pervasive that an industry trade group, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, helped Dateline NBC expose how consumers are getting ripped off by dishonest technicians in a January broadcast.

The ad that led to Westbrook's unfortunate encounter with Elite started when she got a blue envelope full of ads and coupons. Those ads landed in mailboxes earlier this winter, said Rand Gottlieb, owner of the Valpak franchise in the Twin Cities.

But her routine cleaning job got more complicated when an Elite technician came up from her basement with a black smudge on his fingers. Westbrook said he told her she needed to get her furnace blower cleaned immediately.

"He said it wouldn't be healthy to live here," Westbrook said. "I just thought, 'He's the expert.'"

The receipt shows a $200 charge for cleaning "blades and housing," plus $267 for three chemicals to control mold, mildew, bacteria, fungi and bad odors. Westbrook doesn't believe the technicians even lifted the covers off her vents to clean the ducts. She saw them clean the dryer's outlet with a rotary brush that couldn't come close to penetrating the 30 feet or more of pipe connected to her dryer.

John Schulte, executive director of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, described Westbrook's experience as a "horror story" for his industry. A professional cleaner would not have used more than one chemical, and that would have been used only after a total cleaning of the system. For what Westbrook paid, her entire system should have been thoroughly cleaned, Schulte said.

After the technicians left Westbrook's home, she checked her receipt and was alarmed to discover the chemicals posed a "potential health risk." That's when she tried in vain to reach the company.

Westbrook was also perturbed by the Better Business Bureau's reaction to her complaint. In a letter, the BBB said it forwarded her gripe to Elite but "we let them know a response is not necessary."

BBB spokesman Dan Hendrickson said the letter should have indicated workers couldn't find an address for Elite. After Whistleblower's inquiry, Hendrickson said the complaint was reopened and referred to the BBB offices in Chicago and Indiana.

Valpak stopped including Elite's ads after complaints from Westbrook and others, Gottlieb said.

"Here at Valpak, we try very hard to do all our business with reputable companies," Gottlieb said. "And when, once in a long while, we realize that a merchant is not doing business correctly, we stop doing business with him immediately ... as we did this time."

Illinois homeowners expecting to pay up to $99 for cleaning services were charged as much as $9,000, in some cases after they were shown photographs of nonexistent mold in their ducts, according to the lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general. Last week, Westbrook added her name to the attorney general's list of victims.

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  • CHOOSING A DUCT CLEANER

    Low price come-ons and the bait-and-switch are common practices among some in the air duct cleaning business. Here are tips from the Better Business Bureau and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about how to avoid getting "sucked in."

    •Check the company out at www.bbb.org or (651) 699-1111.

    •Get a second opinion.

    •Be aware that cleaner ducts have never been linked to better health, nor do dirty ducts necessarily mean more dust is coming into your home.

    •Examine the labels of any chemicals to be applied to your ducts so you'll know whether they're meant for that.

    More information is available at www.startribune.com/a327

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