Florida, you might have heard, is a sunny place for shady folks. We’ve had that status ever for the reason that first grinning huckster bought an acre of swampland to an unsuspecting Yankee, promising it was “waterfront” property.
We’ve seen sooooo many examples of this. For example, Charles Ponzi, the man who invented the Ponzi scheme in Boston, fled to Florida, the place he promptly acquired concerned in a scheme to sell lots that were literally underwater. He instructed patrons the tons have been close to Jacksonville, which they have been for those who name 65 miles away “close to.”
As a Florida native, I’ve lengthy been fascinated by tales about Ponzi and the opposite rogues who pulled off intelligent cons right here. Possibly it’s as a result of I hail from Escambia County, the one county with the phrase “rip-off” proper within the title.
Because of this I used to be so intrigued the opposite day when our letter provider dropped off a stiff white card that carried the distinctive odor of: “Uh-oh, this ain’t proper.”
“IMPORTANT WATER QUALITY NOTICE” it screamed. “The Water Plant might be in your space testing your water and gathering knowledge FREE of cost.”
Nowhere did it clarify what “The Water Plant” may be. It’s definitely not my native utility, which is run by the town of St. Petersburg.
The phrase “FREE” acquired my eyebrows up, too. You realize something within the “Free” State of Florida that claims to be free in all-caps lettering most likely comes with a hefty price ticket.
“Due to the standard of water altering in some areas (on account of elevated inhabitants, air pollution, and chemical use), Water Plant recommends you will have your water examined as quickly as potential,” the cardboard warned. “That is extremely advisable even when your water is filtered/softened. Bear in mind, it is a FREE service supplied by The Water Plant.”
Then the cardboard requested I fill out a number of questions and mail it again. I flipped the cardboard over to see the place it might go. The handle stated, “Water Plant,” and a put up workplace field in Palmetto.
Now I used to be actually suspicious. The second FREE is what satisfied me that this was some form of ploy. To seek out out what was behind it, I turned to that well-known investigative reporting device generally known as Google.
A fast search turned up complaints to the Higher Enterprise Bureau about an organization known as Florida Filters LLC, the true supply of the “Water Plant” card. The complaints stated issues like, “This firm must be investigated and fined for high-pressure gross sales ways, predatory lending, and exploitation of the aged.”
It jogged my memory of a tip I’d gotten a number of months in the past from a Tallahassee lawyer and creator named Bill Bielecky. He wished me to put in writing about Florida firms which have satisfied folks they want particular water-treatment gadgets once they actually don’t. What they’re promoting are water softeners, however they declare that they’re making the water more healthy, cleaner, devoid of carcinogens.
Initially, I used to be reluctant to sort out this. I’m not “Craig on Your Facet,” a kind of reporters who go after sketchy automobile sellers and crooked contractors. I write in regards to the surroundings — though there are many sketchy builders concerned in that.
However the Water Plant card that landed in my mailbox satisfied me to make the leap.
‘Anticipated cleaning soap financial savings’
The water-test racket hasn’t made an enormous splash anyplace, nevertheless it’s been round for a minimum of a few a long time. It’s been happening lengthy sufficient that since 2003, the Attorney General’s office has posted a lengthy warning about it.
With out naming any firms, the warning talks about “unscrupulous salespeople” who “prey upon involved customers through the use of scare ways and fraudulent practices.”
The warning from Lawyer Normal Ashley Moody mentions, with out entering into specifics, that “fears in regards to the purity of our water have elevated dramatically lately,” thus setting the stage for this skullduggery.
Let me fill in a number of the background right here.
Florida not too long ago ranked first in the nation for polluted lakes. The U.S. Environmental Safety Company has knowledgeable the state Division of Environmental Safety that its water air pollution requirements — to make use of a extremely technical time period — “suck.” Our water issues fueled the poisonous algae blooms that worn out a lot of the Indian River Lagoon’s seagrass, resulting in the continued mass die-off of manatees.
The warning on Moody’s web site says to keep away from any affords of a free water check. Sorry, Florida Filters, aka “Water Plant!”
“Fraudulent sellers that publicize ‘free dwelling water testing’ might solely be all for promoting you their water therapy system, whether or not you want it, or not,” the A.G. stated.
The following half echoes what Bielecky instructed me in regards to the companies that provide these exams. The exams are a part of a gross sales pitch that’s as exactly choreographed as a Busby Berkeley synchronized swim routine.
“In performing the check, the salesperson might add tablets or droplets of chemical substances to your faucet water, explaining that the water will change shade or that particles will type if the water is contaminated,” the A.G. warned. “When the water adjustments shade earlier than your eyes, the salesperson might warn you that the water is polluted and should trigger most cancers.”
In fact, the check doesn’t actually present that. These added tablets or droplets ensure that no water pattern can go the “free check” as clear, thus scaring the shoppers into forking over their dough.
One firm the A.G. went after in courtroom in 2010 had the surprisingly simple title of Florida Water Testing Inc. Amongst different issues, salesmen for this Clearwater firm claimed that the water therapy system it was promoting would pay for itself by means of “anticipated cleaning soap financial savings.” Some folks actually fell for that.
“Anticipated Cleaning soap Financial savings,” by the way in which, goes to be the title of my new alt-rock band.
This firm is all WET
I made such a deep dive into this topic that I began feeling like Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt.” Amongst different issues, I paged by means of paperwork from a number of the 50 or so lawsuits Bielecky filed through which he represented the victims of those gross sales sche — er, excuse me, pitches.
In a single from Brevard County, he famous that the water therapy firm was shopping for its gadgets for $800 every wholesale, after which promoting them for practically $7,000 apiece retail. Bought from every other supply, the system would price lower than $2,000, the lawyer stated.
By scaring the bejabbers out of consumers, the salesmen get them to agree on the spot to purchase a water softener with out taking time to test costs and even get a second opinion.
One in all Bielecky’s instances out of Pasco County included a captivating deposition. This one concerned an organization known as Water Analysis Know-how — W.E.T., get it? — and an Odessa-based firm known as Independent Savings Plan Company, or ISPC.
The Odessa firm financed the shoppers’ purchases from W.E.T. In signing up for these merchandise, folks signed ISPC agreements that functioned like a bank card. In response to various complaints, the ISPC settlement’s credit score practices jacked the worth up manner past what the shoppers anticipated.
In some instances, clients found years later that ISPC had filed a lien on their houses that they needed to repay earlier than they may promote the home.
ISPC turned out to be the proprietor of an organization named LeverEdge that bought the water therapy programs to W.E.T. within the first place. They have been benefiting from each ends of the transactions.
Within the 2019 deposition, Bielecky confirmed a kind of credit score agreements to ISPC president Robert Schabes and requested him, “So the place does this say it is a bank card account or settlement?”
“It doesn’t,” Schabes replied.
Then Bielecky reminded Schabes that ISPC used to work with an organization known as Emerald Coast Water Authority of Fort Walton Seaside. Emerald Coast was sued by former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for defrauding its clients. Why, he requested, did the A.G. sue?
“To the very best of my recollection,” Schabes replied, “the lawyer basic alleged that the service provider represented themselves as a water utility.” (Oops, extra unhealthy information for The Water Plant.)
Emerald Coast additionally used that very dramatic check to persuade people who their water was unsafe. The check, Schabes stated, really confirmed the hardness of the water — nothing extra. He defended using the check throughout the gross sales pitch, so long as the gross sales rep recognized it precisely.
Bielecky identified that in reference to the Emerald Coast case, ISPC had signed an settlement with the lawyer basic. Within the settlement, ISPC promised to coach salespeople in tips on how to ship an trustworthy pitch for his or her product.
But Schabes testified his firm had merely handed alongside to WET a press release of what it should do, nothing extra. There have been, Bielecky identified, “no coaching supplies, no demonstrations, no demonstrative coaching.”
“We don’t prepare our retailers tips on how to promote,” Schabes replied. “We’re not within the promoting observe.”
A welcome to the neighborhood
The Chamber of Commerce likes to level out that 900 or so new folks transfer to Florida every single day. However when these people arrive from, say, New York or the Midwest, no one tells them what they’ve gotten themselves into.
That’s why numerous these water-treatment firms goal these new homebuyers, who shortly discover themselves in over their heads.
“We had simply purchased our home,” Vanessa Gilles, one in every of Bielecky’s purchasers, instructed me once I known as her and her husband, Paola. “A letter got here within the mail. It was from this firm. They wished to return by and speak for a bit and provides us a present card. It was like a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present. We didn’t comprehend it was a water firm.”
The salesperson got here by their Melbourne dwelling carrying a shirt with the W.E.T. lettering on it. He shortly steered the dialog to water and persuaded them to pour him some liquid from their faucet. Then he put his chemical into it. When it modified to one thing unappetizing, “he stated, ‘See, that is what you’re consuming proper now,” she recalled.
The salesperson instructed them that putting in the tools he was promoting would make their water free of poisons. Showers could be extra comfy. Dishes and garments could be simpler to scrub. The system would pay for itself very quickly!
The couple determined the tools he was promoting was funding. In fact, not one of the promised advantages materialized. And in wanting over the documentation, Paolo Gilles discovered they’d been bamboozled.
“I knew one thing was mistaken as a result of the rate of interest was by means of the roof,” he instructed me. In the meantime, it appeared as if paying it off would take 15 years. “We tried to cancel it, nevertheless it was already too late.”
By suing W. E. T and ISPC, the couple acquired a settlement and the defendants wound up masking courtroom prices, Bielecky instructed me. However I take into consideration what number of extra people have but to determine what’s happening. They most likely really feel like they’re sinking quick, about to go below.
I’ve tried a number of occasions this week to name Randall Nye, the proprietor of Florida Filters, aka the Water Plant. To this point, he hasn’t responded. If I ever attain him, although, I do know what I’ll say about his supply of a free water check: “Go soak your head.”
Florida Phoenix is a part of States Newsroom, a community of stories bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: [email protected]. Observe Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.
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