From personal experience: The value of a 2nd or 3rd opinion

Perhaps a good secondary headline might be “Scammers try to Cheat BBB Employee During Furnace Maintenance.”

Every day of the week I research the latest ways that criminals try to get consumers to part with their money by using deception and fear.  Several times a week I write a news release or appear on a radio or television talk show to educate consumers about emerging and recurring scams and how to prevent them.  The sad truth is that it can happen to anybody.  However, consumer education – a large part of what Better Business Bureau does – is the ultimate protection.

In early November I was putting finishing touches to a news release about annual furnace maintenance scams BBBs hear about from consumers across the nation.  It was a reminder that I should practice what I preach.

I called the new oil company I do business with and made an appointment.  In years past I had been told from time to time that my 10 year-old furnace was not performing at 100 percent capacity and that I eventually would have to replace it.  This time I was told something quite different.

The furnace technician poked around, and 30 minutes later, he called me down to the basement, told me that there were serious problems with the unit and that it required immediate replacement.  He said the furnace had several cracks that were leaking dangerous fumes into my home, and he handed me a paper with the handwritten notation “Unit unsafe to operate.  Switched off and left off.”  I was astonished.

I looked at the paper and looked back at him without saying a word.  He then told me he would call in another “expert” from another town to verify his findings.

One hour later the second expert concurred, and said I was placing myself and family in danger if I used the furnace again.

I then turned to a trusted friend of mine who recommended a man who had been in the HVAC business for 45 years.  The next day he turned up at my home, inspected the furnace and checked his findings with a few gadgets.

He asked me if anyone in the house had been suffering headaches or dizziness, if there was soot around the air intakes or on the carpets.  No, there had been no such problems, and the furnace had been running for two weeks.  The only headache, I explained, was being told by two “experts” that for $3,800 they would replace my furnace, and if agreed to that, they would waive the maintenance fee.

His conclusion:  Though he didn’t want to criticize anyone else’s work, there was nothing wrong with my furnace.  He showed me how the air flow was going up the chimney and not blowing back into the house, and he measured the air for carbon monoxide in the basement. There was none.

He also informed me that the maintenance technician neglected to properly clean the unit.  He said yes, my furnace was not working up to 100 percent capacity, which was not unusual for a 10 year-old furnace, and that I would have to replace it when it no longer properly heats my home or it breaks down repeatedly.

The gentleman refused to accept any money for his inspection and cleanup, however, he did allow me to make a donation to his preferred charity.

I still have not received a bill for the annual maintenance from the oil company.  Perhaps they are waiting for me to decide whether to buy a new furnace from them. The estimate sheet with the frightening notation did not contain any information about the cost of the maintenance.  When they do send me a bill, we will discuss the matter.  At no point did I nor will I mention I work for BBB.

It was a first-hand experience of how scammers use fear as a potent weapon to get consumers to make a snap decision.  After all, the warning that the furnace was unsafe to operate was in writing That gave it even more credence.

There is no doubt that a faulty heating system can be very dangerous and that an expert should be called to assess and make any necessary repairs.

I am not an expert in home heating or air conditioning.  In fact, I have trouble nailing two pieces of wood together.  However, I do know the signs of a scam, and after this experience, the value of getting a second opinion.

The strongest shield a consumer has against marketplace fraud is education.

Stay warm and safe this winter!

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About Howard Schwartz

Howard Schwartz, Executive Communications Director of Connecticut Better Business Bureau, is an award-winning former correspondent and anchorman, and media consultant for Fortune 500 companies. He specializes in issues involving consumers and the marketplace.