Predatory plumbing

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Predatory plumbing

A bit of a warning. Today's post is long, it's a rant, and it's not about audio. It's about predators. Feel free to skip it.

For the past several months we've gotten a notice from the water company that we have a leak. They can tell this because a small amount of water is always running on their meter, 24/7.

Time to call the plumber.

He arrives in his shiny new truck and together we discuss how to figure out where the source of the leak is. We agree the first step is to shut off the water mains at the house, find the metering system at the street, see if the leak is between the street and my home—a real expensive disaster of major proportions if it is. After half an hour of digging through the neighbor's lawn to find the meter we score. Open her up, have a look. The meter's not moving. Whew!

Now we know it's somewhere inside the house. At this point he comes to me with his iPad and announces the next step is a whole house audit of every faucet and toilet for which there is a standard fee of $360. Youch! That's a lot. 

"Well," he explains, "not to worry. If the audit turns up the problem and you hire me to fix it, then we waive the audit fee and you pay only the repair bill."

Fair enough, let's go.

Five minutes later he announces he's found it. Of course. A leaking toilet. He checks the other two toilets we have and they are fine. Great work.

Now, this happens on my birthday—a day I reserve for myself. I don't go to work. I am instead having fun finishing the 4th (and final) book in my action/thriller novel series, Eemians. So, figuring he's got this simple repair handled I return to my basement lair to keep writing. Meanwhile, Terri's going to handle finishing up with the plumber.

A few minutes later she comes in and tells me his estimate for repairing the leaking toilet.


There's got to be some mistake. We can buy a new toilet—hell, we can buy all new toilets throughout the house for less.

"I am sorry," say I to the plumber, "there must be some mistake."

"Nope," he says, showing me on his iPad the standard fee for rebuilding a toilet. It's official. Right there in black and white on an iPad (rebuilding is an impressive term. Think of what it costs to rebuild your car's engine).

*Spoiler alert. A toilet has only two parts to its mechanism: a flapper and a fill valve, both of which retail for about $20 and takes about 10 minutes to install—even for a knucklehead like me.

Ok, back to our story. Now, I am fascinated. "You have to rebuild the toilet? There are only two parts that can be replaced. Is that what you're telling me? $1,500 to replace those two parts that I can buy at Home Depot for $20?"

"We don't buy from Home Depot," he informs me with a sneer. "No, no, a complete rebuild is far more extensive than just replacing those two items. It's a complete rebuild" (he has to repeat that key phrase).

A rebuild, I am told, involves removing the toilet, opening her up, rebuilding the insides, testing every aspect of the toilet, then replacing the wax ring seal, reseating the toilet, and finally we're back to perfect with no leak. That's 2.5 hours of work and $1,500 (which, in case you don't have a calculator handy is $600 an hour plus the $20 parts).

Stunned that he's brazen enough to try this on me with a straight face, I have to push further because he's left one critical aspect out of any hustle. Fear. Is he up to the challenge?

"I think what you're proposing to me is highway robbery," I tell him. "I'll just replace the flapper and fill valve myself."

He takes the bait, shaking his head as any all knowing expert concerned with my well being would feel obligated to do.

"Nine times out of ten, people that try that wind up not fixing the problem or making it worse, and then you're calling me back and paying this anyway."

Scare tactic. Well played. But if we're to follow traditional scam patterns, now he's got to go back to being my best friend. And he does.

Because he has our best interest at heart, he offers us a 15% discount if we agree to sign up for their $39 a month insurance plan for future plumbing problems.

Terri asks him what about just replacing the toilet instead. "Sure," he says, "$3,250 plus the price of the toilet."

You have to give it to this fellow. He's got brass cajones to look us in the eye with a straight face.

Ok, you can see where this is going. Of course, I don't bite and now get stuck for the $360 inspection fee which I agreed to. Painful lesson.

On Sunday I go to Home Depot and within half an hour the leak's fixed.

What's the moral of this tale? Couple of things. I've written extensively about my fascination with predatory spam and scams. They always come in either the mail or the internet, so I feel somewhat insulated. I never considered the idea of in-person predators from legitimate local businesses.

Second, you can see how this kind of hustle works. From the plumbing company's perspective they only need enough clueless people to bite in order to score big. Those, like me, who actually understand what's going on are likely in the minority. I mean, let's face it. The plumber is addressing two home owners in their 70s who just want the problem to go away. We live in a mid-affluent neighborhood. We're perfect marks. Why not?

Third, I'll bet money that the way this works is a new model where the plumber actually gets a commission for every sale he makes. I guess that because when he sensed he was losing the battle with me, instead of backing off he dug in deeper—used scare tactics, shamed me for being an older ignorant homeowner. In other words, he worked it. He worked it hard.

Lastly, this was a well organized program run by some very slick and competent sales people. This wasn't orchestrated by some local yahoo. In fact, after some research I learned the original owners had been bought out by a conglomerate. Now it makes sense.

What's the old saying? If it sounds too good to be true...

Perhaps we should also watch out for the opposite.


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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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