As you may have seen from our story over the weekend, Hydro One is set to shut off power to most of Pelham early next Sunday morning for maintenance work. Fingers crossed that the outage lasts only those four predicted hours in the middle of the night. The last time it was a lot longer than promised.
After one too many very much unscheduled power outages in 2022, we decided last fall to install a whole-house backup generator. We weren’t alone. The demand for generators in Canada and the US has boomed as the consequences of climate change increasingly affect electrical grids.
A Pelham acquaintance of ours, someone whose judgment I trust, had such a generator installed at his house, and based on his recommendation I decided to give his contractor our business.
Or rather, big mistake for me to ignore the red flags that popped up and waved frantically in my face while this character walked our property to write his estimate, spoke evasively, and then asked for a whopping 50 percent as a deposit. (Consumer Protection Ontario, a government agency, notes that large deposits can be a sign that you're dealing with a "Disappearing Contractor," and advises against putting down a deposit any larger than 10 percent of the contract.)
That’s the power of trusted word-of-mouth. It can blind you to the obvious. Make you ignore body language that practically screams, “You’re about to get royally taken.”
The total job was to cost about $12,000, making the deposit just under $6000. Let me put this amount in context.
Remember how I’ve occasionally noted in this space that we’re not exactly rich—a point that I also made clear to this guy on his estimate visit—well, that $6000 represents about 20 percent of my take-home last year from the Voice. For us, that’s a lot.
Beyond the obvious reasons, why are we particularly keen to keep our electricity on? Even before the pandemic food prices were high—now they are insane. We buy meat on sale only. We have four freezers of varying ages and sizes in the basement to store this and other food that we prepare in advance. We’d prefer that an extended blackout not destroy all this hard work and economizing. The generator would be a large initial investment that would function as insurance over the next decade-plus.
So after receiving this man’s quote, I e-transferred the deposit to him on the promise of installation once the ground started thawing at the end of winter—not that any actual digging would be required.
During his estimating, I pointed out to the guy a tall bush and a long raised garden bed that my wife and I would have to remove to make room for the generator, tasks that would involve considerable effort on our part and that we’d need to start once we knew when he intended to begin work.
Not a problem, he said, we’ll get this installed first thing in the spring. He said he would let us know the schedule in January.
Well, January came and went.
February came and went.
Finally, in March, legitimately concerned that the guy might have taken ill, I sent an inquiring email. He responded: “Working on scheduling today. Will let you know beginning of April when you can expect us.” Okay, not exactly first thing in the spring, but at least it was a response.
But after that?
Crickets. We were ghosted. No response to our multiple emails and voicemails. No explanations, no apologies, nothing.
(Ironically, if he had offered even a bogus excuse for the delay—“The wopple-dopple factory in Latvia was hit by a meteor, won’t be able to get your generator until September”—I would have swallowed it, and never been the wiser about any of this for at least another few months.)
Only after the prolonged silence—and after contacting the person who originally recommended him—did I start looking into this man and the business. I know. A day late and $6000 short. (There’s a great old adage among news editors aimed at maintaining a healthy level of skepticism: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” I botched the due-diligence thing here big-time.)
It turned out we weren’t the first to fork over thousands of dollars to this company in return for being stonewalled. One disgruntled online reviewer says she waited for over a year—a year—before finally demanding her deposit back (and then she says the cheque bounced). Their Better Business Bureau rating is a D+. There was at least one previous bankruptcy involving the same principal. And after hearing of our situation a few days ago, a local contractor in a different industry told me that they, too, were owed money.
For the love of...
At the end, by email, voicemail, and hardcopy, we formally requested our deposit be refunded by a given date. That date also came and went.
After a bunch of unsuccessful attempts, along with my spouse I finally found the guy at his place of business last week. Here’s how that went down. After I asked when we could expect our deposit back, he melodramatically put a hand in his pants pocket then withdrew it, empty.
“I guess not today,” he said sarcastically.
Talk about staying true to character. Dismissive belittlement. Quite the approach to customer service.
But what about the police, you’re asking. Isn’t this a straight-up contractor scam, the sort of thing we’re now being warned about all the time?
According to the NRPS, because there is an actual business and business location, this guy’s conduct—reprehensible as it may be—doesn’t qualify as a scam. Scammers show up at your house, promise a new roof or driveway coating by Friday, take a deposit, then disappear, but aren't actually in the business they purport to be in.
It’s a case for civil court, say the cops.
If not a scam, then how about a short-term swindle? If you can get 10 or 20 would-be customers to hand you $5000 deposits every few months, that’s $50,000 to $100,000 dollars in rolling working capital for you to exploit over and over again, robbing customer Peter, so to speak, to pay creditor Paul.
I have no idea and no proof that this is what this business is doing. But given what I’ve discovered online, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are more of us out there, unwittingly bankrolling this company’s ability to stay a few steps ahead of the debt collectors.
Will we win in court? Given the current demand for generators, the company has suffered no financial loss whatsoever. Legal fees and interest will almost certainly be awarded to us in the judgment.
But in the meantime we can’t afford to go ahead with another generator contractor because we've already allocated that cash to the first one. And who knows how long the legal process will drag on. In the meantime, Hydro One might actually succeed in making their Niagara grid blackout-proof. (Right. Fat chance.)
So, learn well from our misfortune, folks. For crying out loud, do not ignore your gut instincts. No matter how glowing the personal recommendation is, do not fail to read a company’s Google Reviews, their Better Business Bureau reviews and ratings, and whatever else you can find online (and if you can’t find much, that’s a red flag too).
It’s an adage as old as civilization itself and as true today as ever: Forewarned is forearmed.
(And you thought I was going to say that a fool and his money are soon parted. Okay, that too.)
See you next time.