Like bedbugs or rodents or even dandelions, some things just keep coming back.
Last year we profiled the experiences of customers who did business with Aqua-Dri Basement Waterproofing and Thrifty Waterproofing, both of which were connected to a contractor named Al Demola.
Demola appears to be back.
On Aug. 14, 2011, nearly 6 inches of rain fell in Freehold, flooding the finished basement of Aleta and Jack Heir.
They hired a company to pump out the water.
A week later, another 3.5 inches came down, flooding their basement once again.
“By that time, the news was full of dire warnings about Hurricane Irene, the new moon, saturated water tables and a perfect storm of flood conditions,” said Aleta Heir, 65. “Though our finished basement was gone, we were terrified of the damage to the home.”
They set an appointment, and a rep came the next day.
“After a lengthy examination of our basement, he told us that his company could dry the basement and give us a lifetime warranty times three generations,” she said. “I commented that it’s only as good as the lifetime of his company, at which point he told me that Water Shield has been around for 30 years and did $140 million in business in the past year.”
The rep said Water Shield would repair cracks in the 35-year-old foundation, install sump pumps with back-ups, fix mold problems and shore up the foundation with steel rods and pins. He estimated 15 pins would be needed, and if more were needed, it would cost $250 per pin.
The price tag? $26,000, not counting any extra pins.
“The fates seemed to be pushing us in his direction. An earthquake struck while [the rep] filled out the paperwork,” Heir said. “I feared our cracked foundation was crumbling. With a trembling house and a hurricane bearing down, we threw our usual caution to the wind.”
They signed the contract, paying $13,000 by check and charging $13,000 to a Chase credit card.
The next day the workers arrived — not in company trucks, but in trucks rented from Hertz, Heir said.
Several hours into the project, the rep told Heir they’d need an additional 20 pins totaling $5,000. But he was a nice guy. They could have a month to pay, they were told.
Heir said the job was completed on Aug. 25, and the basement door was taped closed because of the mold remediation process.
After Irene battered New Jersey, the Heirs checked for new flooding.
“We thought that when we untaped the doors we’d find either dry floors or industrial fans,” she said.
Nope. The floor was wet. The walls were wet.
The Heirs said no one returned their immediate calls to the company, but a few days later, an office worker called asking for the $5,000 payment.
The company called again to ask for payment on Sept. 14, and the office worker promised that the head of the company — “Lou Russo” — would call.
On Sept. 16, Aleta Heir said she answered her cell phone, even though the caller’s number was blocked. It was “Lou,” but reception was bad and the call was disconnected. Heir called the office asking for “Lou” to call again, but no one did, she said.
The couple finally hired some independent inspectors to examine the work.
One was John DePaola of Superior Interior/Exterior Contracting of Freehold. Before he ever got a look at the basement, the couple described the sales pitch and the work recommended by Water Shield.
“I asked if the name ‘Al Demola’ rang a bell,” DePaola said. “The minute they said they needed these extra pins, I said, ‘This has Al Demola written all over it.’”
The couple had never heard of Al Demola, but DePaola said his inspection of the job reinforced his concerns.
What was done wrong? According to DePaola and the other inspectors, the list is long. It includes live black mold, dripping wet walls, failure to obtain permits, mud seeping through a large crack in the foundation and other cracks that were untreated, no evidence that steel pins were added to the holes made in the foundation, two outflow PVC pipes that were held together by duct tape and much, much more.
One of DePaola’s employees found a chat board on which customers complained about Water Shield. One post was by a man who claimed to have worked for the company, and he left in a dispute over pay. The salesman said “Lou Russo,” the head of the company, was really Al Demola.
We talked to that former salesman, who directed us to a YouTube video — an ad for Aqua-Dri starring Al Demola — and he said that’s the guy he knew as “Lou Russo.”
“Some people at the company would call him ‘Al,’ and I asked why,” the salesman said. “He said it was a nickname from ‘Fat Albert’ because he lost a lot of weight.”
Meanwhile, DePaola had recommended the Heirs dispute the $13,000 they charged on their credit card, and within days, Water Shield was calling, eager to come back to the house.
The Heirs, guessing the company was notified they were disputing the charge, didn’t want to talk to Water Shield anymore. Still, company workers showed up at the home on Oct. 31, Hertz rental trucks in tow, but the Heirs didn’t answer the door.
Heir said that during the first week of November, Water Shield called “incessantly,” but the Heirs refused to answer.
They decided to hire someone else to fix the mess, which the couple had delayed because the Water Shield contract said the warranty would be voided if anyone else worked on the basement. Then on Dec. 1, the credit card fraud department called to say Water Shield tried to charge $7,000 on Aleta Heir’s card. She told the lender not to pay.
Attempts by Water Shield to claim funds continued. In January 2012, the Heir’s bank deducted $14,000 from their account — the account had been set up for electronic payments of outstanding balances on the credit card — because the billing department apparently hadn’t been notified of the ongoing dispute. Several weeks later, the amount was restored.
Soon after, the credit card company denied the dispute and recharged the account for $13,000.
Finally, the Heirs hired an attorney to represent them.
LOOSE ENDS, OR TIGHTENING THE NOOSE?
Even though the salesperson identified “Lou Russo” as Demola and DePaola said the job reeked of Demola, Bamboozled wanted to be sure.
We contacted the advertising company that sold the Water Shield ad seen by the Heirs, hoping it would share who took the ad on the company’s behalf.
“Al Demola,” a rep said. “He had at least three company names in three years, including Water Shield, Aqua-Dri and Thrifty.”
There are four complaints against Water Shield with the Better Business Bureau, and one complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, which said it had dozens of others against Aqua-Dri and Thrifty collectively.
Demola did not return our calls to his cell number, his home number and a few others.
Oh yeah. Water Shield’s phone line is disconnected, too. We reached out to Chase, which said it’s reconsidering the couple’s dispute.
Consumer Affairs said it’s continuing to investigate the one complaint it received.