Bamboozled has been writing about New Jersey businessman Al Demola for five years.
The attorney general and the Division of Consumer Affairs filed suit earlier this week against Demola and his newest company, Titan Shelters, which offers bomb shelters to homeowners.
According to the state’s seven-count complaint, and to several customers interviewed by Bamboozled, Demola took money for bomb shelters that he never delivered.
He also advertised and offered such products in New Jersey without the required home improvement contractor registration with the state, the complaint said.
“Demola promised safety and security, but delivered angst and disappointment to consumers from their purchase of survival shelters manufactured at the defendants’ non-existent manufacturing facility,” said acting Attorney General John Hoffman. “As a result, consumers paid Demola thousands of dollars upfront for survival shelters and products, but received nothing in return.”
The state wants Demola to pay restitution to consumers and reimburse attorneys’ fees and costs, plus pay civil penalties that range up to $10,000 for each violation.
The state’s claim covers consumer experiences that were featured in the Bamboozled column last year.
The state alleges that Demola advertised Titan Shelters on television in the Virginia and West Virginia markets, and on its former web site. Then on at least two occasions, Demola traveled to those areas to meet with prospective customers and to sign contracts for shelter purchases, the state said.
The complaint also alleges that Demola told certain customers to get loans for their bomb shelters from a Rhode Island bank, and then wire deposits directly to him. At least two consumers did so, to the tune of $24,500, the complaint said, and the consumers are still making payments on the loans.
While not identified by the state, Bamboozled spoke to two customers who have those loans.
Ken Clayton and his partner Scott Olson signed a contract for a $21,000 bomb shelter when Demola visited their Gainesville, VA home in December 2013, the couple said. They took a loan with a bank recommended by Demola, and then they sent a $2,000 deposit to Demola’s New Jersey address, and later wired $13,500 more, records show.
But Demola disappeared with their money, the couple said.
“This civil suit is enough to make our day. We’re excited that somebody is actually taking action against this thief,” Ken Clayton said. “Criminals like him need to be stopped and if people do nothing, he will continue to rip off more consumers.”
Tina Greene of Kinsdale, VA, also took a loan with Demola’s recommended banker. She’s still paying on a $12,000 loan for her undelivered bomb shelter.
“[Demola] is a chameleon, using religion to make me think he was good person. I’d listen to him tell me he had been to church and he was praying for me to get the loan,” Greene said. “It makes me want to put a finger down my throat.”
Greene is still making monthly payments of $188 on the loan.
“I can hope that there are criminal charges coming too,” Greene said. “I think the S.O.B. has been running around with our money long enough.”
Consumer Affairs also wants to cancel Titan Shelters’ certificate of formation, and to stop Demola from owning or operating any other entity that advertises, offers for sale, sells and/or performs home improvements in New Jersey.
“We want to hold Demola accountable for his alleged violations and make things right for consumers,” said Steve Lee, acting director of the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs. “Our goal is to protect future consumers by permanently barring Demola from operating in New Jersey as a home improvement contractor.”
Demola’s cell phone and numbers for Titan Shelters are no longer in service, but we reached his attorney.
“We’ll get our day in court and we’ll defend it, and my client will be vindicated,” attorney James Lisa said. “This is a civil process and not a criminal one. I want to make sure everybody knows no one is alleging any criminality on the part of my client.”
A LONG AND STORIED HISTORY
Al Demola is no stranger to Bamboozled.
We first wrote about him in 2010 when Arlene and John Dolce had a dispute with Aqua-Dri, a basement waterproofing company owned by Demola.
They gave Demola a $3,000 deposit on a $20,000 job to waterproof their basement and to remove the black mold the company said plagued the space. They asked for their money back the next day — within the three days allowed by law — after they saw Aqua-Dri had an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau.
After some prodding, more consumer complaints, and a second Bamboozled story, the couple received a refund.
But that was only the beginning.
In the years that followed, we spoke to many homeowners who said they were dissatisfied Demola customers.
Some said Aqua-Dri wouldn’t return deposits. Others did business with a new waterproofing company, Thrifty, which was registered in the name of Demola’s wife, Kim Costa’s. They complained of incomplete or substandard work.
Still others did business with a company called Water Shield. Homeowners said the Water Shield sales guy went by a different name, but they identified Al Demola from photographs. One couple took the company to court, winning a $200,000 judgment. They still haven’t collected.
In 2013, Demola seemingly got out of the waterproofing business, starting a GPS tracking service company. The company’s web site was registered to Demola’s wife, and the state filing, which used a Cranbury address linked to the couple, listed Demola as the company “agent.”
The state filing also listed BasementGuard as an “associated company,” and public records showed the GPS company had a home improvement contractor’s registration.
Why would a GPS company need a home improvement contractor’s registration?
When we called Demola about BasementGuard, the conversation took an unusual turn.
He said he owned domains, or web addresses, in the names of some Star-Ledger editors, and he offered to sell them back to the editors.
We confirmed that an anonymous buyer using a private domain registrar purchased the web names for the paper’s editor and publisher. The sites were redirected to a pornographic web site.
Demola also called an editor at home, suggesting, among other things, that The Star-Ledger stop running stories about him and his businesses.
It all led to a lawsuit against Demola by The Star-Ledger, which ended with a financial settlement, Demola handing over the domain names, and promise by Demola to no longer engage in such activities, said Richard Vezza, the paper’s publisher.
“We’re obviously not going to be intimidated and change our coverage because of pressure that he or anyone else puts on us,” Vezza said. “We resolved this the right way — in the courtroom — rather than resolve it in the editorial department.”
Demola, meanwhile, continued his business interests.
We learned Safety Net Technologies was registered in Demola’s wife’s name at that same Cranbury address. It also did business out of state, according to one customer who said Demola owed him $7,000.
That’s when we learned about the bomb shelter business that’s the center of the state’s lawsuit.
In 2013, Demola registered Titan Shelters, also based in Cranbury, with the state.
Bamboozled met four separate customers from Virginia and West Virginia who said they gave Demola thousands of dollars to build bomb shelters on their properties, but no work was done.
While the state’s lawsuit doesn’t cover Demola’s waterproofing businesses, those who say they were victims of those companies were pleased to hear the news.
“Justice has finally been done.” said Arlene Dolce, the homeowner who was featured in Bamboozled’s first story about Demola.
Aleta Heir, the woman who won a $200,000 judgment against one of the waterproofing companies, said she was glad authorities were able to act.
“He hop-scotches from one scam to another. He’s been operating for years and nothing has stopped him. He’s been getting away with it for far too long,” Heir said. “I hope the state can force him to repay some of the people he has damaged and put him out of business long term.”
You can be sure we’ll be watching this one closely, and we will absolutely keep you posted.
Consumer Affairs asks that any consumers who have entered into contracts and experienced problems with Demola or Titan Shelters file a complaint online or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll-free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
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.