Bamboozled January 30, 2017: Flood of new complaints after senior scammed for $11K job he didn’t need

As consumers, we fear and dread the up-sell.

We hate when salespeople of any kind fool us into buying services and products we don’t need.

Or scare us into thinking if we don’t act, we’ll put our families at risk.

But one of New Jersey’s largest plumbing, heating and air conditioning companies has institutionalized those tactics to the detriment of customers, according to interviews with two current employees, two former employees and dozens of homeowners who have had contact with the firm, Tinton Falls-based A.J. Perri.

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Karl Baer of Morganville was featured in a Bamboozled column in which an employee said Baer was sold a sewer pipe replacement job he didn’t need. 

In the three weeks since Bamboozled profiled an 86-year-old man who said A.J. Perri pressured him to take a $9,500 up-sell for unneeded work, two dozen customers came forward with similar stories via email, as did dozens more on NJ.com and on NJ.com’s Facebook page. And employees who are unhappy with the company’s practices have spoken out.

The employees said — and consumer stories claim — the company regularly sells jobs that aren’t needed, uses fear tactics to get customers to act immediately and teaches employees how to offer the most expensive solution first.

Internal emails show sales incentives, and a sales script coaches company reps to offer jobs for which “money is no object.”

The up-sell environment is fostered by a commission-based sales structure, with low-rung employees who respond to calls awarded bonuses for persuading customers to accept additional diagnostic services, which sometimes lead to recommendations for more expensive jobs, the current and former employees said.

Sales reps who are paid on commission follow up, sometimes recommending extensive work that was later deemed by second and third estimates to be significantly overpriced or unnecessary, employees and consumers said.

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This spreadsheet was found in an A.J. Perri “Plumbing Price Book” that was inadvertently left by an employee at a customer’s home. It shows sales and service visits by plumbers, with categories that include “Billable Efficiancy %,” “Revenue,” “New Agreements Close Ratio,” “Average Ticket,” “Sales leads,” “Same Day Camera Tech,” “% of Dig Holes Closed Same Day,” “Daily Rank Totals For Month,” and ” Monthly Overall Rank.”

“They reward top salesmen with bonuses, trips to Mexico, dinners, etc.,” one current employee said. “They do not reward non-sales or telling someone everything is okay.”

All of the employees spoke on the condition of anonymity. The current employees said they feared losing their jobs. The former employees said they did not want their names associated with A.J. Perri.

Bamboozled confirmed the employee identities through document verification, social media searches and cross-checking internal information with other employees.

A.J. Perri president Kevin Perri responded on behalf of the company and its Tennessee-based parent, American Residential Services (ARS), saying customers are free to choose some, all or none of the proposed service options.

When asked about salespeople using scare tactics, Perri said, “Absolutely not, and we will not tolerate that behavior.”

You can read Perri’s full statement here.

Customers let Bamboozled know how they feel about the company, coming forward in unusually high numbers. Dozens emailed with their experiences. Hundreds shared personal stories on NJ.com and on the NJ.com Facebook page. And while we occasionally receive internal documents from company insiders, none of our reports has prompted this many to step forward.

Perri declined to comment specifically on the cases highlighted by Bamboozled.

The state has taken interest in the claims made by consumers.

“The Division of Consumer Affairs is concerned about the allegations against A.J. Perri,” a spokeswoman for the agency said. “The Board of Examiners of Master Plumbers plans to discuss the allegations during its meeting on Feb. 23, and the Division encourages consumers to report any allegations of unscrupulous sales tactics by this company.”

‘SCARE TACTICS’

In early 2013, PSE&G diagnosed small fractures in Tina Snedeker’s furnace. The rep said it wasn’t an emergency, but that the unit should eventually be replaced because the fractures could grow and leak carbon monoxide, Snedeker said.

That fall, the family decided to replace the furnace, water heater and air conditioner before the next winter, so they made appointments with several companies for estimates.

Two sales reps from A.J. Perri were the first to arrive at the Mercer County home, she said.

The salesmen took measurements and discussed price points, then went outside to give the couple privacy to discuss the offer, Snedeker said.

They decided they still wanted additional estimates before making a decision.

“When the salesmen came back into the house and we told them we would be in touch, one salesman showed us a picture of a furnace that caught on fire due to fractures in the furnace and stressed that we could be putting ourselves into a dangerous situation,” Snedeker said.

Then the salesman declared there was unsafe carbon monoxide in the basement, she said. But the home had several carbon monoxide detectors, including one 10 feet from the furnace, Snedeker said. None had ever gone off.

When the couple said they weren’t ready to sign, the salesman said Kevin Perri would want to know why they didn’t get the sale, she said.

“After they left, my husband and I commented to each other that an elderly person could easily be convinced to purchase immediately out of fear of a fire,” Snedeker added. “We did not appreciate them trying to scare us into a contract.”

Another customer said that when he called A.J. Perri for a pre-winter check-up of his 20-year-old boiler in the fall of 2014, he was told it was emitting dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

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Richard Gomulka of Lanoka Harbor stands with his new boiler. He said A.J. Perri used fear tactics to persuade him to purchase new equipment but he hired someone else for the job. 

“I was really scared at this point because the supervisor was telling me how deadly it can be,” said Richard Gomulka, who lives in Lanoka Harbor.

But during a second opinion, Gomulka said, a different plumber said the system was perfectly safe and that Gomulka was being “ripped off.” The new plumber also told Gomulka he could replace the system for less than half of the $12,500 A.J. Perri price.

Gomulka said he visited company headquarters to cancel.

“They tried to use their scare tactics on me again,” he said. “It didn’t end there. [They] called me the next day and tried to scare me again.”

One employee said fear is a common tactic in company sales.

“The sales tactics are all fear based — fear that the problem can get worse or cause damage,” the employee said.

Christina Marold said her grandparents, who are both in their 90s, called A.J. Perri because their Somerset home’s water drained slowly.

It was February 2015, and a salesman told the couple a blockage was caused by a crushed cast iron pipe under the basement floor, Marold said.

They’d need to excavate the floor and dig two feet down and 35 feet across, Marold said.

Marold’s grandfather agreed to the $18,505 job.

The work started the next day, Marold said, because the salesman warned the blockage could worsen and cause overflows.

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The view of the basement in Christina Marold’s grandparents’ home. Marold said A.J. Perri left a mess after it dug up the basement to replace a sewer line. 

“[My father] said he didn’t have any choice because he’d have no water, no shower,” said the homeowner’s daughter, Erika Marold, who is also Christina’s mother. “He was scared that the laundry machine could be spewing up water and the sinks could be overflowing.”

Erika Marold said she tried to see the damage, but workers said they didn’t dig down all the way to the old pipes so there was nothing to see. Instead, workers connected new pipes to both ends of the system above the older pipes, Marold said.

In the end, the family said, the house was covered in cement dust. A.J. Perri agreed to pay a $620 house cleaning bill, documents show. It lowered the balance due by $800 and replaced tools, including a staple gun, the family said was missing from the basement.

Later, Erika Marold said, her father said he didn’t understand why they replaced the whole pipe rather than dig up and splice in a new section at the blockage location.

“This was a very uncomfortable experience that left all of us concerned and suspicious of A.J. Perri’s true intentions with a 94-year-old man and his bank account,” Christina Margold said.

THE UP-SELL

While sales scripts, commissions and bonuses for salespeople are not unusual, the former and current employees say — and documents show — the company gives incentives to up-sell what could be a simple service call.

For example, one internal email explained a contest for “sales leads,” while another told employees to pay special attention to routine service calls.

An employee said the goal of routine service visits “is to find as much as possible wrong with the heating or cooling system that the tech gets a heating and cooling salesman in the home to price out a new system.”

Technicians receive a $75 bonus each time they secure appointments for salespeople to come with additional diagnostic tests, two employees said. The salespeople are then incentivized to sell more expensive work, they said, noting that repair jobs are regularly priced high so replacing an entire system appears to make more financial sense to the customer. Customer accounts support that allegation.

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This is the sales script found in an A.J. Perri “Plumbing Price Book” inadvertently left by an employee at a customer’s home. 

One customer shared with Bamboozled an A.J. Perri “Plumbing Price Book” that was inadvertently left at the customer’s home by a company employee in December 2014.

It included a script for salespeople, who are paid on commission, to write up six options for consumers.

“The 1st one is what I would do if it was my house and money was no object,” the script instructed salespeople to say.

The script’s authenticity was verified by one former and one current employee.

An internal email shows employees are encouraged to give special attention to routine maintenance calls.

An employee said the goal of service visits “is to find as much as possible wrong with the heating or cooling system that the tech gets a heating and cooling salesman in the home to price out a new system.”

Kevin Perri, the company president, said when the company performs an in-depth inspection, its duty is to diagnose problems but also to warn about issues that may arise in the future. That’s why reps, who he said undergo background checks and drug-testing prior to being hired, and who are required to “participate in mandatory ethics and senior-sensitivity training,” present so many options, he said.

One current and one former and employee disputed this, saying there has never been ethics or senior-sensitivity training before last week.

In his statement, Perri also said:

“If you call us to fix your leaky pipe or repair your furnace that isn’t heating, but we don’t also tell you that you should consider replacing your worn-out water heater or upgrade to an energy efficient AC unit to save money on your utility bills, we would have done you a disservice,” Perri said. “That is why we provide our customers with a comprehensive diagnosis and repair options to address the problem they are experiencing, as well as long-term replacement options to prevent bigger issues from occurring or to make their home more energy efficient.”

Perri didn’t address sales incentives when asked.

“Incentives to sell are very clear,” a current employee said, confirming the internal emails were authentic. “Salesmen are on a straight commission structure, so even if they are being sent to a house with a brand new sewer, they are expected to close some sort of sale or problem.”

OTHER PRACTICES

Some customers said A.J. Perri recommended expensive work that was later deemed unnecessary by other professionals called in for second estimates.

Brittany Sesulka said she called A.J. Perri to her Hillsborough home when she and her husband couldn’t clear a toilet clog in September 2014.

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From left, Jack Sesulka, 1, Patrick Sesulka, Chase Sesulka, 3, and Brittany Sesulka, at home in Hillsborough. They said A.J. Perri came to unclog a toilet in 2014, but the technician said the couple had mud in a sewer line. The couple asked a contractor friend to give a second opinion, and he said there was no problem with the line and cleared the clog for $60, they said. 

The rep, Sesulka said, decided it was a bigger problem. He would send another guy with a camera to examine the sewer line.

“The other guy came with the camera and it was the most dramatic thing I’d ever seen,” Sesulka said. “He talked like it was a war scene. He was snaking and said, ‘Wait! There’s mud in the line!”

The rep said there was definitely a crack, and the fix would cost about $8,000, Sesulka said.

“Lucky for us, we had a friend who was in construction,” she said. “He came and snaked it and we never had another issue with it. He said there was no mud in the line.”

The cost for the fix? $60.

Avital Spiegel said her 85-year-old father, a widower with Alzheimer’s disease, hired A.J. Perri in 2014 to do annual service calls at his home.

One day, Spiegel said, she learned her dad had an appointment for a salesman to discuss the replacement of his heating and air conditioning systems. While the systems were old, Spiegel said, they both worked just fine.

Spiegel said her brother was there for the appointment and he explained his dad didn’t need any new equipment.

Her brother asked for any sales calls to stop, saying their dad suffered from Alzheimer’s, Spiegel said.

But a month or two later, Spiegel said, she called her dad when A.J. Perri was at the house. Her father said he had agreed to an $8,000 job for the heat and air systems. He paid $2,000, and the rest was to be financed, she said.

She said she felt the company took advantage of her father.

Spiegel said she called the company to complain, and within a week, the company agreed to return the $2,000 and forgive the rest of the bill.

Consumers can file complaints with Consumer Affairs online or by calling (973) 504-6200. We’ll keep you posted on any state investigations that follow.

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.

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