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Local man takes on plumbing fraud

May 23rd, 2013 · 10 Comments

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.
 

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  • ghostinprint

    Why is this blog becoming a advertising space for Real Estate and now plumbing?

  • Heywood

    Going after fraudulent plumbers is hardly good advertising. The whistleblower happens to be a plumber. Did you expect the person who exposed this scam to work for the railroad?? Don’t expect the state to step up either. They are the ones dropping the ball on enforcement.

  • Looking out for who?

    I think the plumber that wrote this and mentioned how expensive it is to advertise on Google just found a cheaper way to get customers, by getting Magnolia Voice to get his name out.

    Yes, there are unlicensed plumbers out there (just like every other profession) and there are plenty of unlicensed plumbers out there that will do a perfectly good job and very well may save the homeowner some money.

    I think his example of an improperly installed hot water heater releasing deadly fumes and causing injury is a dramatic exaggeration of what in theory could happen but I am guessing hardly (if ever) has.

    This guy should get out of the plumbing business and into the marketing business.

    • Heywood

      So let me get this straight, it’s okay to be unlicensed, as long as your rates are low. The problem is, the scam artists’ rates are exorbitant.

    • Evan Conklin

      The marketing guys say don’t say anything negative about your industry. I did not take that advice.

      I have been involved in two local cases here as an expert witness where the customers were brain damaged with faulty water heater installs. Contact me and I will be happy to supply court records.

      Yes, you can hire anybody you want – licensed or not (by the way I am an unlicensed dentist, I can pull your tooth for $10 if you like as we both use pliars).
      The message is simple: It just informs you that if you need a plumber – make sure that he is one if he advertises so.
      I believe the consumer needs to be aware of the issue if they are to protect themselves.

  • Lady On Lynn

    I love Rich Y’s comments on the PhinneyWood site about this same plumber:

    http://www.phinneywood.com/forums/topic/seattle-scam-school-the-fake-plumber-scam/

  • http://sonjasdailynondrama.blogspot.com/ Otter2

    I appreciate the message because I learned the hard way a long time ago but thankfully was only out $50 for a service call. It was an easy job which the “plumber” from a very well-advertised company never even looked at because I need all new lines from his “diagnosis” as to terrible problems with my water pressure. He never even turned on the water. But he tried to scare me with doom, then intimidate me when I wouldn’t scare. Paid him, kicked him out and when I called to complain I got nothing except disdain.

    Have a great plumber when I need one — one guy, one truck, one license, life-long local.

  • Drew

    Great article – maybe the most helpful one I’ve seen on here. Thank you.

  • neve

    I think this is a fantastic community service by Evan. Years ago a plumbing company that shares the same name as an airline tried to pull a scam like this on me. I was a young mom, home with a baby and a toddler, and two men came into my house to look at my hot water heater and ended up pressuring me into signing a contract to do work that they said would cost $4000-6000 dollars. I was uncomfortable with their pitch yet felt very vulnerable alone faced with the two of them. I signed and they left. Then I did some research and discovered that there were over 75 complaints at the State Attorney Generals office for this company. I ended up getting the work done by a local plumber who charged me about $500 dollars. I called their corporate line and informed the customer service director that I knew about all the complaints to the state and they had better tear up that contract. I still see their ads everywhere and I can’t believe this company is still in business. People need to know they can check the State Attorney General’s office for complaint records. And also that going with personal referrals for plumbers is important.

  • plumbercoomera

    this is a disgrace for all express plumbing professionals. I mean, this causes problems with the industry.