Hidden camera investigation catches dishonest repairman

DENVER — FOX31 Denver wired a house with hidden cameras to put ten Colorado plumbing and heating companies to the test and what we discovered in our undercover investigation was unsettling.

To set up the scenario, we asked Plumbline Services to disconnect a hose on a combination water heater-furnace unit.

According to Matt Glick from Plumbline, the “repair” should have taken only minutes and should have cost no more than the $30 to $50 trip fee, which is what most companies charge for a house call.

The first repairman was from Applewood Plumbing and the technician passed the test with flying colors. He not only reconnected the hose, but he did it for free.

A Plumber from Whipple also found the problem right away. He charged us a $49 trip fee, as did most of the other plumbers we contacted.

But then we got what seemed like a “bait and switch” from Ben Franklin.

The plumbing company quoted us $49 on the phone, but soon after the technician reconnected the hose, he told us the actual minimum price for even the easiest job was $148.

Ben Franklin sent us a statement which says, in part, “because (the technician) ended up fixing the problem he charged a minor adjustment fee of $148 and waived the $49 appointment fee.”

Then there’s Bob from Roto Rooter, who connected the hose for $217. When the homeowner questioned the price, Bob said “I’ll go un-fix it.”

Roto Rooter’s general manager, Jeff Schnabel, admitted Bob made a mistake.

“He was so excited he found the issue, he just fixed it. The mistake he made is he didn`t go and find Linda and get her approval to do the job.”

We felt Action Appliance also overcharged us. For five minutes of work their bill totaled $208.

Still Action Appliance sent us a statement defending the cost.

“We charge a “fair” price for our professional service and quick (same day) response time.”

But no one compared to Tom from Appletree Plumbing Heating and Drains, who only had to glance at our water heater to know it was going to cost “big money.”

With our hidden cameras rolling, Tom quickly reconnected the hose and then fiddled with the water heater’s electrical system for more than 20 minutes. He then yanked out a wire, breaking the water heater’s circuit board–apparently on purpose.

Tom then told our homeowner the repair was going to cost $1,753.

We then came out from behind our hidden cameras and asked Tom if he was “ripping people off?”

Tom’s response? “No, we are not.”

We then showed our footage to the owner of Appletree, Brad Apple, and he said, “I do have an issue with this. It will be addressed and if (Tom) is with us, something like this will never happen with him again or with anyone in our company in the future.”

The day after our interview, Apple called to inform us Tom had been fired.

His lawyer sent this statement which reads in part, “AppleTree has successfully served over 100,000 client calls over the last decade, doing so with honesty, integrity and outstanding customer service…We stand behind our work and remain committed to providing trustworthy services through accurate diagnoses, quality workmanship and competitive pricing.”

The list of the plumbing and heating companies that passed our test include:

  • Applewood Plumbing
  • ARS
  • Heating Tech
  • Whipple
  • Done

We felt the following companies overcharged us during our hidden camera investigation:

  • Ben Franklin
  • Roto Rooter
  • Action Appliance
  • AppleTree

Jan Zavislan, with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, says you should do your research on plumbing and heating companies before you’re faced with an emergency.

“Ask your neighbors who they recommend,” Zavislan said. “And search online for any complaints.”

He also told us you should never leave a repairman alone.

“Show them where your problem is and watch what they are doing,” he said.

If you suspect you’ve been deceived, then file a formal complaint with the attorney general’s office and the Better Business Bureau.

“If contractors are in the house and they are misrepresenting the need for service, the scope of service or the price of service it is a violation of the Consumer Protection Act,” Zavislan said.