Scammers, con artists and crooks. Hucksters, tricksters and fraudsters.
We had it all in 2016.
But some who took advantage of consumers this year were special in how they stole cash, made promises they didn’t keep and how they gave consumers a red-tape runaround.
Here’s a look at the seven who made it into the Bamboozled 2016 Hall of Shame.
The $30K Scammer
Gwendolyn Dixon, 82, hired Michael Solice of Clean Air USA to repair her East Orange home after it was destroyed by a fire.
But Solice, documents show, took $30,000 of insurance money and never did the work.
Solice didn’t have much to say when we spoke to him in September, and he didn’t respond to our new message.
Dixon also filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs.
“They said they would put someone on the case and they would call me but they never did,” Dixon said.
We asked Consumer Affairs for an update, and it said the matter is “ongoing.” It also called Dixon to update her on the case, and it told her the same thing.
In the meantime, Dixon has rented an apartment around the corner from her home, and she’s found a new contractor to do the work.
She said the contractor agreed to take the remainder of the insurance money to do the job, and he’s been working on it — even though he hasn’t yet been paid a dime. The insurance company won’t send any more checks until the job hits certain milestones.
Construction is ongoing, and we’ll keep checking in to see the status of the job.
The E-ZPass Scammer
In one of our strangest cases, a deadbeat contractor profiled in Bamboozled for bailing on a deck job was hauled in by authorities, suspected of an E-ZPass scam that involved another Bamboozled reader.
The case came together in an usual way.
It started when Richard Zaragoza started receiving violation notices from E-ZPass for a license plate that was stolen from his trailer. Even though he repeatedly showed proof to E-ZPass that the plate was not in his possession, the violations continued.
There were more than 140 in all.
After we contacted E-ZPass, it eliminated all the wrongful notices.
Then we learned there was an arrest.
Erich Niemann, the contractor from that unfinished deck case, was charged with third degree theft by deception and receiving stolen property for allegedly using the stolen license plate. He racked up nearly $50,000 in unpaid tolls and fines, authorities said.
Then Consumer Affairs filed a six-count complaint against Niemann, alleging he and two of his companies — Restore the Shore Contracting and Niemann General Contractor Builder — worked as an unregistered contractor, performed shoddy work, left home improvement jobs unfinished and committed other consumer protection violations.
We’ll keep you posted on those cases.
While those E-ZPass troubles started with contractor Niemann’s alleged actions, E-ZPass itself displayed pretty poor customer service.
“We can’t prevent people from stealing license plates, but we can do a better job of communicating with victims,” Tom Feeney, spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said at the time. “The process should not have been this difficult for him.”
Feeney said the Turnpike Authority was working with management at the E-ZPass customer service center to improve customer service.
But that wasn’t the only time a customer complained about getting E-ZPass to hear reason last year.
Bamboozled stepped in when Ralph Zuolo received dozens of wrong violation notices from E-ZPass. When he tried to contact the agency in writing, he never got a response, he said.
In the end, Vuolo learned he had a transponder problem, and he received an apology for the lack of response.
“We let Mr. Vuolo down,” spokesman Feeney said. “He had every right to expect a response to his letters, and we failed to provide one.”
Feeney again said E-ZPass changed some internal procedures and planned additional training “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
We asked for an update on how this was all going for E-ZPass customer service reps, and Feeney confirmed some procedures were changed and there has been additional training for employees.
Al Demola and Titan Shelters
Bamboozled readers have known Al Demola for a long time. We’ve covered complaints against his waterproofing businesses, including a $200,000 judgmentthat was never paid. Then there were complaints about a new Demola businessthat sold GPS units.
Demola even told Bamboozled he owned the domain names of some editors at The Star-Ledger, and he offered to sell them back to the editors. The Star-Ledger filed a lawsuit that ended with a financial settlement, Demola handing over the domain names and Demola promising to no longer engage in such activities, the newspaper said at the time.
Then there was another new business: Titan Shelters.
Several customers told Bamboozled Demola was selling the shelters, taking payments and never delivering the product.
But Demola didn’t pay, so the state tried something new.
“Demola’s account was sent to the New Jersey Department of Treasury’s Division of Revenue and Enterprise (DORE) for further collection efforts in June,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “The DORE sent the delinquent account to its primary collections vendor on June 6. Typically, the vendor sends an initial demand for payment letter within one week of receiving an account.”
But alas, the state said it still hasn’t received any funds to reimburse customers.
As consumers increasingly turn to online shopping, Amazon has made itself a trusted go-to destination.
But scammers have also made Amazon their go-to platform for shams and scams.
Amazon sells its own products, but also offers products from third-party sellers. These are sellers who post their wares on Amazon’s site.
But an increasing number of fake third-party sellers are showing up on Amazon, and they trick consumers to pay for their purchases outside of Amazon’s payment system. First, they ask the consumer to text or email to make sure a product is in stock. Then, using a series of intricate emails that look exactly like those Amazon might send, the fake sellers instruct buyers to pay using a wire transfer or Amazon gift cards.
That’s the problem.
Amazon offers guarantees to shoppers as long as they use Amazon’s payment system. But when the fake sellers entice consumers to contact them via email or text, they’re no longer part of the Amazon system.
After our story ran, we received dozens of emails from customers who found fake sellers on Amazon, so it seems the retail giant isn’t doing much to keep its site clear of scammers.
IRS impersonation scammers
IRS scams have been rampant, and we expect to continue to see them.
Con artists call and claim a debt is owed to the IRS. To avoid arrest or other unpleasantries, the caller says the debt can be paid — right now, over the phone.
Sometimes they tell the victim to wire money, but lately, the scammers instruct victims to buy iTunes gift cards and give the card numbers to the scammers.
Of course, once the scammers have the card numbers, they take the money and run.
The IRS will never call you about unpaid taxes or any other matter. It won’t email, and it won’t text, and it certainly won’t contact you over social media. It will always reach out by snail mail.
With a twist of IRS rules, Catholic hospitals are ditching their pension obligations and leaving retirees with, in some cases, nothing.
We’ll find out in March if the twist will stick.
At issue is whether Catholic hospitals can define their pension plans as “church” plans, which exempt the plans from the federal laws that protect most other plans by requiring they buy insurance on the plans and follow minimum funding requirements.
The “church” status was given to the St. James pension plan, and we recently learned the plan is months away from going belly up.That means the 76 former employees who were part of the plan and counted on it for retirement benefits will get nothing for all their years of work.
Former and current employees at St. Peter’s University Hospital face the same uncertainty, so they headed to court. Now they’re waiting for a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to, they hope, uphold lower court rulings that said Catholic hospital pension plans should not be “church” plans.
If that’s the decision, the pensioners will continue their lawsuit claiming the hospital broke federal laws that are in place to protect pensions.
And if it goes in favor of the employees, St. James pensioners could bring their own suit.
What action deserves to be in the Hall of Shame more than taking away someone’s promised pension?
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.