Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Vancouver, Wash.-based air duct cleaning companies for unlawfully contacting more than a million Washington consumers with more than 13 million robocalls and sending tens of millions of deceptive mailers to Washingtonians for at least two years, in violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
The companies called more than 500 Washington consumers over 100 times — one Washington consumer received 169 robocalls.
In addition to contacting Washingtonians unlawfully, the company used deceptive tactics to convince individuals to buy expensive services and a long-term “VIP Membership” that provided little to no value.
Ferguson also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, which the court granted today. The temporary restraining order blocks the companies from using deceptive tactics, including the way it robocalls Washingtonians.
“Robocalls are more than just annoying, they can also be illegal,” said Ferguson. “These companies used illegal robocalls to bombard Washingtonians with deceptive marketing. My office will continue to be a watchdog to protect Washingtonians from illegal robocalls and deceptive marketing.”
Ferguson filed a lawsuit against US Air Ducts & Sky Builders Inc. and DLM Services Inc., as well as owner Rami Mornel and general manager David Moshe. The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts that US Air Ducts’ and DLM Services’ deceptive advertising and unfair sales tactics violated the state Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Automatic Dialing and Announcing Device Statute (WADAD).
Ferguson asks the court to require the companies and individuals to stop their unlawful actions. If the court rules that these companies violated the law, the Attorney General’s Office will seek maximum penalties of up to $2,000 per violation, as well as costs, fees and other relief. Ferguson also will seek restitution for affected Washington consumers, but the total amount of restitution the office will seek is still undetermined.
Violations of state law
The defendants contacted potential customers in Washington and other states through advertisements in the mail and robocalls.
Ferguson asserts that the deceptive way that US Air Ducts and DLM Services advertised and presented its services violates state laws:
- The companies made thousands of robocalls per day to more than a million Washingtonians without their permission, violating the WADAD.
- The companies deceived Washingtonians by “spoofing” their caller IDs to mislead them as to who was calling, violating the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
- Mailed advertisements had the potential to deceive Washingtonians, stating the service was a “limited time offer” at reduced pricing ― neither of which were true ― violating the CPA.
- DLM Services created fake Google reviews to misrepresent its reputation to Washingtonians, violating the CPA.
- The companies misled Washingtonians about the value of their VIP membership, violating the CPA.
Deceptive and unfair advertisements
The companies’ robocalls promoted a “limited time offer” for air duct cleaning. US Air Ducts and DLM Services bought lists of Washington consumers’ information and made thousands of robocalls per day, contacting more than a million Washingtonians more than 13 million times. Many Washingtonians complained that the companies continued to call them despite their being on the national Do Not Call registry and/or asking the company to stop contacting them. Using robocalls to contact Washingtonians without permission to sell products or services violates the WADAD.
In a tactic known as “spoofing,” US Air Ducts and DLM Services also used more than 100 different caller ID numbers and deceptive caller ID names to mislead Washingtonians as to who was calling, violating the state Consumer Protection Act. The companies never used their real names for the caller ID. Instead, they used various fake company names to appear to be located within the receiver’s area, such as “Seattle Duct Cleaning.”
The mailed advertisements offered a coupon for the same “limited time offer” as the robocalls. The coupon advertised a supposedly reduced price of $29 to $55 without listing any limits or exclusions, such as the heating and cooling system’s size, condition or location. These advertisements also listed the “special” deal as a limited time offer, even though the coupon provided no expiration date, creating a false sense of urgency. Finally, the coupons misrepresented that the “regular” price for the same service was $150 to $225, but the companies never charged that price. All of these tactics had the potential to deceive thousands of Washington consumers, in violation of the state Consumer Protection Act.
More recently, DLM Services has generated fake Google reviews, misrepresenting that the company has earned five star reviews from nearly 100 consumers within a one-week period. Ferguson asserts the company’s fake reviews had the potential to deceive Washingtonians, violating the Consumer Protection Act.
Deceptive VIP membership
If an individual responded to either the mail or robocall offer, these companies sent a technician to their home for a consultation and cleaning. The companies instructed technicians to attempt to upsell expensive additional services and a VIP membership once they arrived at a consumer’s home.
Between undisclosed limits and upselling once a technician entered a consumer’s home, the $29 to $55 “special” often ended up costing Washington consumers more than $1,000.
The companies sold 5-, 10- and 25-year VIP memberships, often charging around $1,200. However, there was no fixed price for the membership; the companies gave their technicians a general range to charge the customer.
Consumers have complained that in selling the membership, the company and its technicians misled them into believing that the purchase would provide a number of annual services, including air duct cleaning.
In reality, the VIP membership only guaranteed that these companies would send a technician, at the consumer’s request, to the consumer’s home annually and provide a visual inspection. The companies would use the annual visit to sell additional cleaning services. If Washingtonians decided to cancel their membership, the companies often refused to provide a refund for any remaining years of a pre-paid VIP membership.
Ferguson asserts that the deceptive way that US Air Ducts and DLM Services presented their VIP membership violates the state Consumer Protection Act.
The Attorney General’s Office received dozens of complaints about the companies’ robocalls and deceptive advertising and services. Washingtonians filed nearly 120 complaints about the companies with the Federal Trade Commission, as well.
In one complaint, a daughter contacted the office on behalf of her 82-year-old widowed mother. She stated that her mother received an advertisement and contacted the company for a cleaning. The technician convinced her mother to purchase a 10-year VIP membership for six monthly payments of $200, leaving the woman with the impression that she would receive annual air duct cleanings at no additional charge. The daughter was able to cancel the membership before her mother paid in full, but the company continued to try to collect the remaining amount.
Another man received US Air Ducts’ robocall and contacted the company to clean his deceased mother’s home. The technician convinced him to purchase a 25-year membership for $2,318 based on the understanding that he could transfer the membership to his own home without any extra charges and that it included annual air duct cleaning. However, when the man had US Air Ducts come to his home the next year, the company charged him $1,380 to transfer the membership and to clean the air ducts in his home.
What are robocalls?
Robocalls are calls made with automated dialing systems that can dial hundreds or thousands of consumers from anywhere in the world. Once a person answers the phone, a recorded message will play.
Many robocalls originate from overseas, making it difficult to track the origin of and prosecute the individuals responsible for the calls.
Newer technology enables robocallers to use what is called “spoofing.” Spoofing allows the dialer to deliberately manipulate the information transmitted to your caller ID display to disguise their identity. A spoofed call can appear to be coming from the same area code, and even the same three-digit prefix, as the receiver. Robocallers can even have the call display as coming from an individual, business or government organization, such as the Internal Revenue Service.
Scammers often use this tactic to trick consumers into thinking that a call is coming from a neighbor, their local police department or the federal government.
Only certain types of robocalls are allowed without express consent from a consumer. It is illegal for a company to use robocalls to contact someone to sell products or services without permission.
What should you do if you receive a robocall?
The best advice for Washingtonians who receive a robocall without their permission is to hang up.
Some robocalls may give you an option to opt out of receiving future calls, but if the caller is a scammer, they are unlikely to honor your request. If you believe a call is a scam, report it to the Attorney General’s Office at atg.wa.gov/file-complaint or call toll-free 1-800-551-4636. Washingtonians also can report robocalls to the Federal Trade Commission at https://complaints.donotcall.gov/complaint/complaintcheck.aspx.
Some phone and wireless services offer call blocking or labeling services to help individuals determine whether a call is a telemarketer or a scammer. Consumers should contact their service provider to find out what is available.
Assistant Attorneys General Mina Shahin and Kate Barach of the office’s Consumer Protection Division are handling the case for Washington.