When I told Barry Boardman that the appliance repairman he let into his house to fix his refrigerator, the one who took his $175 deposit check and never returned, had a criminal record for theft, everything suddenly made sense to him.
All summer, he kept calling Michael Stoneham asking for a refund of his deposit since he never got the new motor Stoneham promised.
"He kept giving me excuses," Boardman recalls. He said Stoneham claimed he got in a car accident, and his brakes weren't fixed right.
Then he said the check was in the mail. Then he stopped answering his phone.
"He just hangs up. He's hoping I'll let it go and stop calling."
Boardman, of Fort Worth, wrote me, "I know this is a small case compared to other letters you get. I am at a loss about how to get my money back or keep other people from having the same problem with this company."
To me, it's not only the money; it's about the idea that any appliance repairman could so easily fall short on doing his job -- and get away with it. Years ago, a repairman who repaired correctly and was paid an honest dollar was the rule. Today, you don't know who is walking in your front door.
The Watchdog can't get Boardman his money back. Stoneham declined to talk to me when I reached him by telephone. But by looking at how this happened and what consumers can do to protect themselves, Boardman may get his second wish: keep other people from having the same problem.
Step by step
Boardman picked Stoneham and his company, Pro-Tech Appliance Repair, out of the Yellow Pages. He had hired him once before, and the job had gone well. But in these trying times, some businesses that once were successful now cut corners to stay afloat. Sadly, the Yellow Pages are no longer a credible source on their own. But that's OK. Thanks to the Internet, I learned in a matter of minutes what I needed to know.
First, I checked the Better Business Bureau and saw that Stoneham's business had an F rating for "failure to respond to two complaints filed against business."
I found his company address on a business directory site on the Internet. Usually, when a business has a physical address, that's a good sign. Then I went to the Tarrant Appraisal District website (tad.org) and looked up the owner of the property. After typing the landlord's name into my favorite Internet reverse telephone directory (anywho.com), I found his phone number.
Called the landlord and asked for a reference on Stoneham, his tenant. The landlord said, "He hasn't been there for the last four or five months. He broke his lease. He was always late paying. He owes at least the last month."
Then I went to another of my favorite websites, publicdata.com ($30 annual subscription fee), and found his driver's license number. With that, I knew his birth date. He's 53. With that, I could search the criminal database on publicdata.com, which showed a 2005 conviction for theft that resulted in probation.
Internet searches are not always reliable, so I double-checked with the Dallas County Criminal Courts database (free), which verified the conviction.
Confirmed it all with a neat app on my iPhone called Texas Criminal Record Search (99 cents), which needs only a name and a date of birth. Stoneham's conviction came up there, too.
I shared this with Boardman, then showed him a photo of Stoneham I found on the BustedMugshots.com website. When Boardman saw the police mug shot, he said, "It's scary looking at that mug shot and thinking I invited him in my house and handed him a check."
That's another thing. Never pay repair techs before the work is completed. (We all learn the hard way.)
One problem is that in Texas, appliance repair techs (unlike plumbers and heating/air conditioning techs) are not required to have a license, enroll in continuing education classes or undergo a background check.
"The state of Texas doesn't require any kind of background check?" Boardman asked. "That's unnerving."
Not if you know how to do a background check on your own. It's OK to ask a company to provide you with the full name and birth date of a repairman. If you can't get it, that's a red flag.
Coming Sunday: How some financial institutions make huge profits when forcing homeowners to pay double or triple the actual cost for homeowners insurance.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043