• Companies bombarded Washingtonians with 13 million robocalls
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson on June 4th announced a legal victory in his effort to crack down on illegal robocallers. A King County Superior Court judge ruled that Vancouver, Washington-based air duct cleaning companies and their owner broke the law by illegally robocalling Washington consumers. The court also determined that the companies engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices in violation of the Consumer Protection Act. Ferguson filed the complaint in September 2019 after his investigation revealed that the companies contacted more than a million Washington consumers with more than 13 million robocalls. Additionally, the companies sent tens of millions of deceptive advertisements to Washingtonians’ homes over a two year period.
The companies called more than 500 Washington consumers over 100 times. One Washington consumer received 169 robocalls.
Judge Susan Craighead ruled that US Air Ducts & Sky Builders Inc. and DLM Services Inc., as well as owner Rami Mornel, violated the Consumer Protection Act in numerous ways, including robocalling Washingtonians without permission, misleading people about who was calling and creating fake Google reviews to mislead people about their reputation.
The judge’s ruling, issued Friday May 29th, also makes permanent a 2019 order prohibiting the companies’ and their owner’s use of these illegal practices, including making robocalls from their locations in Washington.
“These companies used illegal robocalls to bombard Washingtonians with deceptive marketing,” Ferguson said. “This is an important victory that sends a message to the industry that we will protect Washingtonians from illegal robocallers.”
The court’s ruling resolves the majority of the legal issues in the case, but does not establish penalties or restitution. The remaining issues, including the amount of consumer restitution, will be resolved at trial.
Violations of state law
The defendants contacted potential customers in Washington and other states through mailed and online advertisements, as well as robocalls.
The court found that the deceptive ways that US Air Ducts and DLM Services advertised and presented their air duct cleaning services violates state laws in multiple ways, including:
Making millions of robocalls to more than a million Washingtonians without their permission, violating the Washington Auto Dialing and Announcing Device statute (WADAD).
Deceiving Washingtonians by disguising their caller IDs to mislead them as to who was calling, violating the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
Making millions of robocalls to hundreds of thousands of Washington telephone numbers on the federal Do Not Call registry, violation the Consumer Protection Act.
Mailing advertisements implying the promotional price for the service in the advertisements was a reduction from the regular price and was only a “limited time offer,” – neither of which was true – violating the Consumer Protection Act.
DLM Services created fake Google reviews to misrepresent its reputation to Washingtonians, violating the Consumer Protection Act.
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 being on the federal Do Not Call registry and/or after asking the company to stop contacting them. Using robocalls to contact Washingtonians without permission to sell products or services violates WADAD.
The companies never used their real names for the caller ID. Instead, they used various fake company names to mislead Washingtonians as to who was calling and 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 fact that only half of the heating and cooling system is included. These advertisements also listed the “special” price 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.
DLM Services generated fake Google reviews, misrepresenting that the company has earned five star reviews from nearly 100 consumers within a one-week period. The judge found the company’s fake reviews had the potential to deceive Washingtonians, violating the Consumer Protection Act.
Deceptive VIP membership
In the complaint, Ferguson also asserts that the deceptive way that US Air Ducts and DLM Services presented their VIP membership violates the state Consumer Protection Act. This assertion was not part of the judge’s ruling, and will be decided at trial.
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.
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.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
– Office of the Attorney General