Kris Meacham is still waiting for someone to haul away the piles of branches from his front yard in Lakeville. Four months ago, he paid $500 to Northern Lights Tree and Landscape to do some pruning, but the company never finished the job.
After he couldn't reach the company, Meacham lodged a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. He found out the company had an "F" rating because of 11 other unresolved complaints in recent years. Meacham also found out that very little can be done to hold a business like this one accountable.
Northern Lights Tree and Landscape solicits door-to-door, provides minimal information about itself and carries no license or business registration. But homeowners keep using its services because it's cheap and promises to get the job done right away.
Contacted Friday by Whistleblower, company owner Dustin Kampa of Big Lake admitted he doesn't follow certain government rules and that his flier wrongly states that he is bonded. He said his chipper had been broken, and that he would finish Meacham's job this weekend. But he hung up on Whistleblower before she had a chance to ask about the complaints to the Better Business Bureau.
The company has no affiliation with a similarly named business in Duluth.
'Licensed • Bonded • Insured'
Northern Lights printed those three magic words on the bottom of its flier. While a door-to-door salesperson can easily make such claims, it's hard to verify them while standing at the front door. But that's exactly what a potential customer should do before agreeing to anything, the Federal Trade Commission advises.
The tree trimmer showed up at Meacham's door late last year, and was paid in cash on the spot. When no one showed up later to remove the debris, Meacham contacted the city of Lakeville and found out the company wasn't registered to go door-to-door. It also lacked a city tree-care license.
Cities use the licensing and permitting processes to verify that businesses have the proper insurance and bonding and the identity of their owners. Lakeville requires that door-to-door solicitors wear ID and display their permits.
Many of the BBB complaints echo Meacham's dissatisfaction.
"There is still a huge mess in my front yard that I want removed."
"[I] left over 40 voice mails requesting a call back and/or refund."
"The guy never showed up again and our check was cashed."
"Failed to dig out stump and roots, cut down shrubs and put trampoline and swing back in original places."
Whistleblower checked with the Minnesota secretary of state for Northern Light's business filing, the Department of Labor and Industry for workers' compensation insurance, the Department of Commerce for workers' compensation self-insurance and looked online at the Department of Agriculture's mandatory Tree Care Registry. No matches were found for Northern Lights Tree and Landscape or Dustin Kampa.
In addition, the Department of Revenue could find no sales and use tax permit under either name.
Kampa told Whistleblower the company has a sales permit, but said he didn't know the permit number.
Kampa acknowledged that his company hasn't been bonded for a year and that he is neither licensed nor has a permit to do business in Lakeville. But Kampa said that while he doesn't proactively correct the flier's misinformation, he is truthful "if they ask."
Licensing "has never been an issue," Kampa said.
But things such as licenses, permits and registrations are important, according to Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. "It's all about accountability," Ritchie said.
"If you go to our website and find that they are filed and there's a registered agent and there's an address, really, you've reached a whole other level of comfort."
Meacham says he has simple expectations from anyone he does business with: "Do what you say you're going to do. Don't hose people over."
Do your homework
Here are suggestions assembled from various agencies.
• Check a door-knocker's company ID and ask for their door-to-door permit if your municipality requires one.
• Be wary if they don't tell you verbally and in writing about your right to cancel a sale within three days. To read more on the federal "cooling-off period," go to www.startrib une.com/a2170.
• Check to see if they are registered with the secretary of state at www.startribune.com/a2169.
• Check their rating with the Better Business Bureau.
• Verify their workers' compensation insurance at www.startribune.com/a2167.
• Ask for a copy of their bonding insurance, liability insurance and sales and use tax permit.
• See if they've been sued at www.startribune.com/a438.
• For tree care businesses, verify they are on the state's Tree Care Registry at www.startribune.com/a2168.
Jane Friedmann • 612-673-7852