By reporter Steven Smalley
Imagine you have a leak under the sink. You search the Internet and find a reputable plumbing company, or so you think. A guy with “Plumbing” on the truck, in the company name, and on his uniform comes to your door – but he’s no plumber. There’s an 80% chance you’ve happened upon a widespread scam perpetrated on homeowners – unlicensed plumbers.
Evan Conklin, for decades a licensed plumber and business owner in Magnolia, is on a lonely mission. Against the overwhelming tide of fraudulent operators and con artists, he is telling a story you probably haven’t heard. Magnolia Voice was listening.
Start with this, of the major trades, only two are required by law for the individual to be licensed: electricians and plumbers, according to Conklin. Why? Because shoddy work by any of these two trades can kill you. Think about an improperly vented hot water tank powered by natural gas. In no time you have a home filled with deadly fumes. This is just one example.
Other than inferior and sometimes dangerous practices, it’s usually the sales pitch by commissioned employees that causes the most damage – to your wallet. Here is an example. “We installed this pump in a basement for a customer for $500,” Conklin begins. “Years later it needed repair, so she called another company because we weren’t immediately available. They wanted to charge her $3500 for an hour’s work. She said, ‘no,’ but ended up paying them $500 as they walked out the door. We returned to change the pump for $500, not $3500. They charged her $492 to give her a sales pitch. Turns out, this guy was not a plumber…obviously working on commission and trying to get $3500 an hour. That’s a real story.”
Oddly enough, this is also a story about advertising. Because search engines such as Google, charge by the “click” for paid advertising, “It takes as many as 19 clicks to get one contact,” according to Conklin.
“At $30 per click, it costs companies at least $300 to gain a customer,” he says. “Legitimate plumbers cannot afford this. Only the fraudsters who charge exorbitant rates can pay these kinds of fees.”
“So when you search for a plumber, chances are the first thing you’ll find is a scam artist who is lining up to rip you off,” says Conklin. Some of the biggest names who purchase the most advertising subscribe to this unscrupulous business model, he says.
When asked about some of the worst cases he’s heard of, Conklin describes an example of what can happen. “If you call for a kitchen sink stoppage, they don’t want a 15-minute unplug-your-kitchen-sink. They want to sell you a $10,000 sewer job. So they’ll come out, poke around in you’re sink for a few minutes, ‘Oh gee, we can’t clear it with this snake, we are going to have to get the camera out here. Sign here.’ You agreed to pay them $300 for them to bring a camera out with another guy, and he pokes a camera in there. He has the opinion that they have to go out in your yard and dig up your sewer. They make this stuff up. It could be $7000 to dig a hole in your yard to fix your sewer. You either have to send them packing, or say ‘yes’ because you can’t flush your toilet.”
“If you say ‘yes,’ you sign a contract right there on the spot. Then within an hour there’s a backhoe in your yard. When they get to the pipe, it breaks. Then they say, ‘Gee, it’s worse than we thought, we have to replace the whole line.’ It will cost you 20 grand,” Conklin says. “These are the guys who can pay Google thousands of dollars in advertising costs.”
There is more bad news. If you ask who enforces the law, that’s the missing part. There isn’t much in the way of enforcement.
“Unless someone gives (Labor & Industries) an address where the guy is with a wrench in his hand, they can’t do much about it,” Conklin explains. “It’s a consumer issue. Where’s the consumer protection? There isn’t any.”
So, what can a homeowner do?
“Don’t let anybody in your house who doesn’t have a license,” Conklin suggests. “Keep wheeling-dealing-hustling guys out of your house. Simply ask to see his plumber’s license that he’s supposed to have in his pocket.”
But don’t be fooled if they present a contractor’s registration. It’s not the same thing. According to Conklin, anyone can get a contractor’s license by applying for it and obtaining some insurance. Actual plumbers’ licenses take 8000 hours of training and certification to legally acquire.
“Watch for the guy who comes into your house and starts talking big bucks without having a license in his pocket,” Conklin warns. “Plumbers are expensive but not as expensive as a scam artist.”
To bring the message home, Conklin has produced an animated video out of his own pocket to tell the story. It can be seen here.