Bamboozled has written several columns about the business dealings of Al Demola, a former waterproofing contractor who has a long list of consumer complaints and judgments against him and his companies.
Last fall, we wrote about his new GPS tracking company, and then his latest business, a bomb shelter installation company called Titan Shelters, located in Cranbury.
We thought that might be our last Demola story, but unhappy Demola customers popped up.
“I think we have been bamboozled by Al Demola, the owner of Titan Shelters,” Ken Clayton said in an email. “We purchased a shelter and it was never delivered. We have now asked for our money back and we keep getting the runaround.”
Clayton and his partner, Scott Olson, live in Gainesville, Va. They said they saw television ads for Titan Shelters in December 2013.
Olson said he thought it might be a good investment to protect his family and add value to their home.
They decided to give the firm a call.
Olson said he spoke to a woman, who then put him in touch with the owner, Al Demola.
“He said all his reps were so busy that he had to come out to our home personally,” Olson said. “Al came to our home from New Jersey with booklets and a fast-paced sales pitch on Dec. 27.”
They said Demola gave them a yellow paper with the company name and a New Jersey address printed on it. It quoted a $21,000 price tag, had a list of details for the shelter, and at the bottom it said “subject to financing. Deposit Refundable.”
A $395 “administrative fee” was crossed out.
Olson and Clayton then set up a loan with a bank that Demola referred them to, they said. When they were approved, they sent a $2,000 deposit to Demola’s New Jersey address, and within 30 days, they sent a second payment for $13,500 via wire transfer.*
Olson said they set up a March installation date, but when March came, Demola said it had been a bad winter and they needed to reschedule for April 1.
“That date came and he said they were still behind and needed to wait until June,” Olson said. “While all of this is going on we noticed that the website for Titan had dwindled to one page. The 888 (telephone) number had been disconnected.”
That’s when they found Bamboozled’s past stories on Demola’s businesses.
They decided they wanted their money back, so they called Demola, they said. That was in late April.
“He told us he would send a letter of agreement to us to sign and notarize and then send back. Two weeks later, nothing,” Olson said. “So we called again.”
Demola asked them to send a notarized letter requesting the refund so his lawyers could look it over, they said.
And then they contacted Bamboozled.
They shared with us a yellow one-page document with Titan Shelter’s name, a New Jersey address and contact information. It had a handwritten description of the product and a payment schedule.
It’s now June. Olson and Clayton said that despite leaving more messages for Demola, they haven’t heard a word.
They say they’re out $15,500, and they’re paying interest on the rest of the money from the loan they took to pay for the shelter.
While we were looking around about the company, we received another email from Virginia.
Greg Cox said he hired Titan Shelters to build a $53,000 shelter. He said he paid $39,000 so far, and now Al Demola wasn’t returning his calls.
Cox owns a piece of land where he hunts with his family, and he was thinking of building a home there. But when he saw Titan’s ads on television, he said he decided a shelter would be a fun and less expensive alternative to a traditional home.
Cox said he met with Demola, and gave him a $25,000 payment in February. He received a yellow piece of paper, similar to the one received by Clayton and Olson.
“He kept calling me and wanting more payment, and it was getting closer to the time so I thought it was okay,” Cox said, so he mailed another $14,000.
After that payment, Cox said he started getting worried because Demola wasn’t returning his calls. So he did a web search, plugging in Demola’s name and Titan Shelters.
“Then then I read your stuff and I said, ‘Okay, I’ve been ripped off.’ ”
Cox said he left several more messages for Demola, but they weren’t returned.
We told Cox we’d take a look, and on the very day we planned to call Demola, Cox said, Demola called him.
“He said he was having all these problems and I just listened to it,” Cox said, noting he asked for his money back. During the conversation, Cox said, they talked about fraud, Bamboozled and other items, Cox said, and he asked for a refund.
“He said, ‘You have every right to make the request,’ but he was careful with his words and he never did say he would give me the refund,” Cox said.
Finally, Demola asked Cox to send a notarized letter with the refund request so he could show his lawyers, Cox said.
Cox said he sent the letter certified mail, and it should have arrived to Demola on Friday, he said. He said he’ll keep us posted.
Back when we first wrote about Titan Shelters, we learned neither Demola nor the company had a Home Improvement Contractors’ registration (HIC) with New Jersey. While Consumer Affairs didn’t comment specifically on the company, it said a bomb shelter appears to fall within the definition of a home improvement, therefore a registration would be required.
We wondered if Titan Shelters had any such registrations in Virginia.
“Although bomb shelter installation is not explicitly referenced in statute or regulation, I would guess it falls under the legal definition of contracting — provided it exceeded the $1,000 threshold for requiring a license,” said Mary Broz Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the Virginia department that licenses such contractors.
Neither Demola nor Titan Shelters are licensed in the state, she said.
“If a contractor is performing regulated work without holding the required professional license, it may constitute a misdemeanor criminal offense,” Vaughn said.
We reached out to Demola to ask about licensing, the yellow pages, the unusual request for notarized letters and the status of the Virginia refund requests, but he didn’t return our calls. Demola’s attorney did not answer our phone or email messages.
We turned back to the company’s website to see if we could learn anything new.
When it was first posted last year, it said: “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.”
When we were first contacted by Clayton and Olson, the site was whittled down to one page.
It read, verbatim: “Due to the overhelming response from the public, we have reached our quota of sales for 2014. If you have performed your due diligence and have made an educated decision to protect your life, please call 855-528-8426. We will only send our reps to potential customers who are committed to purchase a shelter in the next 30 days.”
By June, the site was taken down. The phone number seemed to be working, with a female voice on the answering message.
The voice didn’t identify the company, but simply asked that we leave a message. So we did.
The website’s status is of interest to Ron Hubbard, the owner of a California-based shelter company called Atlas Shelter that’s been featured in many national news stories.
Hubbard says Demola used photos from his website without his permission to market Titan’s products. He said he learned of it when he spoke to a Titan customer from Virginia who said he never received a shelter and he hasn’t received a refund.
“I called Demola and I didn’t tell him who I was,” Hubbard said. “He said he’s made thousands of bunkers and he’s been doing this for eight years. When I told him who I was he hung up on me.”
Hubbard said when he called back, the person who answered said there was no one named Al Demola there.
Both customers we spoke to said they are in the process of filing complaints with New Jersey and Virginia. They also said they’re filing mail fraud complaints with the Postal Inspection Service.
We’ll let you know what happens.