Sometimes your tips prompt us to reinvestigate a case, even when we thought it was long over.
Such is the case with Al Demola, a man profiled several times in this space because of his involvement in three basement waterproofing companies — Aqua-Dri, Thrifty Waterproofing and Water Shield — that shut down. They were the subject of multiple consumer complaints.
Your tips are how we know Demola opened another business.
Four more businesses, actually, at least three of which have been the subject of gripes on consumer chat boards.
This column was initially going to be an update on the latest efforts of Jack and Aleta Heir, the Freehold couple who won a $200,000 default judgment against Water Shield, to be made whole by Water Shield’s insurance company.
Before we could publish, reader tips reopened our Demola investigation and led to a most interesting response by Demola. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The Heirs hired Water Shield to waterproof the finished basement of their home in 2011, but the $26,000 job didn’t hold up, they said, leaving the walls and floor wet after Hurricane Irene. They said the work was “guaranteed,” but no one returned their calls for help.
They eventually sued and won the $200,000 judgment, but they haven’t been able to collect. The Heirs’ attorney reached out to Water Shield’s insurance company, Penn National, hoping it would give the couple some relief. Last month they had the answer.
The attorney said the insurer said Water Shield wasn’t covered for “this type of claim,” but that the insurer wouldn’t elaborate on what “this” means.
He said he suspects Penn National’s position was because the lawsuit was a Consumer Fraud Act claim, and fraud is an intentional act. Sometimes insurance policies only cover for negligence, he said.
We contacted Penn National, which said it couldn’t discuss the case for customer privacy reasons. But it did say that its policies cover the policyholder — the business — not the business’ customers. It would be up to the policyholder — again, the business — to put in a claim. Customers can’t do that on their own.
The Heirs said they were outraged.
“We knew from day one that Water Shield was licensed and insured. How can consumers be assured that those words have meaning?” Aleta Heir said.
THE NEW BUSINESSES
Back to that new reader tip. We were told Demola was involved with a new company called Traqm LLC.
The company’s web site described the firm as a provider of vehicle GPS tracking services for personal and business use. Bamboozled reviewed the site during the summer but it’s since gone offline.
The web site was registered to Demola’s wife, Kim Costa, and the state filing lists Demola as the company “agent.”
The state filing and the web site registration list a Cranbury address linked to Demola and Costa from their previous companies.
What caught our attention was that the state filing also lists a company called BasementGuard as an “associated company.”
Records show Traqm has a home improvement contractor’s (HIC) registration that’s in good standing, and the Division of Consumer Affairs has no complaints on either company.
But what GPS tracking service needs an HIC registration?
We researched further. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) listed Traqm and BasementGuard on its site on May 16, 2013, giving them a rating of “F.”
“They’re ‘F’ rated because they were misusing our logo. They were claiming to be a BBB-accredited business but they’re not,” a spokeswoman said, noting BBB tried to contact the company twice but requests for information went unanswered. BBB also lists Demola as the “principal” for Traqm and places it in a business category of “waterproofing contractors.”
A quick web search found several complaints about Traqm and BasementGuard, and the complaint authors also linked Demola to the companies.
Curious about a new waterproofing business, we left messages for Demola at several numbers.
Before long, we received a call from a private number.
It was Al Demola.
We asked about BasementGuard.
“No, it’s not associated. It was just…” he said. “It’s just one of the companies we owned. It’s just… we’re not in business. BasementGuard, we’re not doing… It’s just companies we had for future use.”
We asked if BasementGuard was operating or not.
“Yes, it’s done a few small jobs, absolutely,” he said.
When, we asked.
“Way back,” he said, unable to give more specific dates.
We asked about the Heirs.
“Yes, I remember them,” he said.
And the judgment?
“I have no idea. I never got served,” he said.
According to the Heirs, that may be true — they were unable to find Demola, but their attorney said he served papers to the person he believed to be Demola’s attorney.
When we asked Demola for his current address, Demola cut us off.
“Sweetheart, I’m not looking to fight with you. I don’t know about it. I’m sure my attorney got it,” he said of the judgment.
But he wouldn’t give us his attorney’s name.
So we asked about BasementGuard again.
“It was operating last year,” he said, clarifying that jobs were done in 2012.
We later checked with Consumer Affairs to see if the company was registered as a home improvement contractor in 2012. Nope. It wasn’t registered until Feb. 27, 2013.
Demola again said BasementGuard wasn’t taking jobs anymore.
“I work for another company,” Demola added. “I’m in construction.”
“Construction? Is it also waterproofing?” we asked.
“No. No more waterproofing,” he said.
We asked again for his attorney’s name, and he hung up the phone.
Only to call back two minutes later.
He said he owned domains, or web addresses, in the names of some Star-Ledger editors. He requested we ask the bosses if they wanted to buy the domain names from him. Before offering additional information, he hung up again.
We left another message, and in minutes, he called us back.
“I’m telling you, I’m willing to sell back the names of the people at The Star-Ledger,” he said.
He then asked if he should send the letter detailing the offer to The Star-Ledger, or to this reporter’s home address, which he then named.
He hung up before we could respond.
Indeed, an anonymous buyer using a private domain registrar purchased the web names for the paper’s editor and publisher, records show. The sites were redirected to a pornographic web site.
On the same day, Demola also called the Ledger editor at home – twice, according to Associate Editor Tom Curran.
The editor offered Demola the opportunity to dispute past Bamboozled stories. Demola offered the editor his domain name and encouraged him not to run a new story, Curran said.
The Ledger’s attorneys got involved, asking Demola to take down the sites and hand over the domain names.
He did not, according to Curran.
Rather, the sites were redirected, this time to a web hosting address, and he has ignored several letters from the paper’s attorneys.
According to Curran, The Star-Ledger is contemplating litigation to resolve the matter.
MORE TWISTS AND TURNS
While this was happening, we received an email from a company that may have inadvertently given Demola the domain name idea.
The company said it had done business with Demola through a firm called Safety Net Technologies.
The company learned about Demola’s history through a Google search that led it to Bamboozled.
We took a look. The New Jersey business filing for Safety Net is listed in Kim Costa’s name as the “registered agent” and “authorized representative,” in Cranbury, at yet another address previously linked to Demola.
The company claimed it paid $7,000 to Traqm for GPS products, but it only received about $1,000 of merchandise. When Demola wouldn’t return phone calls, the company said, it came up with a creative way to get Demola’s attention: it registered the web site AlfredDemola.com, and posted a message asking Demola to call the company.
The web site has since been taken down, but before it was, unbeknownst to us, the company changed the message, telling readers to contact Bamboozled.
But nine months ago when the site was first posted, the company said, Demola did finally call back. Still, the company hasn’t received a refund.
While we checked out Safety Net, we learned about yet another company Demola started this year: Titan Shelters. Demola is listed in a state filing as the “registered agent” and “authorized representative” of the company.
Demola registered the company in New Jersey in March, at a Cranbury address. The filing describes the business as “construction and sale of survival shelters.”
The company web site says, “We manufacture all sorts of survival shelters used to protect you and your family in case of a pandemic outbreak, civil unrest, malicious mobs, biological attacks, nuclear fallout, acts of terrorism or other such drastic events.”
We asked Consumer Affairs if such a company needs an HIC registration with the state.
“Speaking generally, and not about this specific company or its products, a shelter added to the property of an existing home would appear to fall within the definition of a home improvement and the requirements of the Home Improvement Contractors’ Registration Act and regulations,” said a spokesman for Consumer Affairs. “In addition, any such project also must meet all applicable requirements of the State Uniform Construction Code.”
Titan Shelters does not have an HIC registration, the state said.
We’ll keep you posted on any updates on the many facets of this column.