Infuriating! Scams, dodges, bumblings madden consumers

2002 yielded a wide variety of consumer concerns, from an Internet scam (foundmoney.com) to animal cruelty (Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus). Most businesses made only one appearance, but over the course of 38 columns, several were repeat offenders. Here are my 2002 Fearless Consumer Awards, which I don't expect to see framed and displayed like those "Best of Charlottesville" certificates.

First Place: Modeling Scams
Although I wrote about four separate businesses that hold out hopes of a career in modeling– Models Net International (February 7), Pro Images (February 14), W.I.S.H. Shopping Network (July 18), and John Casablancas (July 25)– my coverage of one, Pro Images, has had the most far-reaching (and acrimonious) effects.

I started investigating Pro Images in November 1997, when I was writing for C-ville and began chronicling a local woman's battle to get a refund when the modeling jobs she'd been guaranteed didn't materialize.

It took three years and the services of a lawyer, but, after filing suit in Charlottesville General District Court in October 2000, she finally got her $300 back. Pro Images' last-ditch ploy was to claim that they were selling only "advertising space," which the contract made clear, and that by publishing the woman's picture in one of Pro Images' phone-book-size collections of snapshots, they'd fulfilled their promise. The judge disagreed.

Thanks to The Hook's website, where my February 2002 column is posted, I've had plenty of contact this year with Pro Images and its clients– or, more precisely, with people who almost became clients but then read my column and thought better of it. The company has raised its fee to $425 and changed tactics; like Models Net, the sales reps (who mainly sweep through small towns in the Southeast) now go through the motions of "evaluating" applicants before allowing them to hand over their money. At heart, however, nothing has changed.

If you want to learn more– about both Pro Images and modeling scams in general– go to angelfire.com/space/modelingscams. It's a fascinating site, full of research on various companies and the types of scams they run, and opens with a quote from the director of a (legitimate) modeling agency: "Never, ever pay money up front for anything."

Second Place: Landlords
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Charlottesville's student population, I heard from quite a few unhappy tenants or sets of tenants, and each one shed light on another facet of the often difficult relationship between landlord and tenant.

 The first issue to be examined (April 18) was subletting fees: How much is too much? When Woodard Properties charged UVA student and Cavalier Daily columnist Lytle Wurtzel $100 for such administrative tasks as processing the sublessees' paperwork and issuing new parking decals, she protested (and wrote about the experience in her column). In the end, even Woodard admitted $100 was "a little steep" and decided to cut it in half.

Weitzner Properties was up next (September 26). After renting from Weitzner for 20 months and moving out in May 2002, Hook staffer Leah Woody received a check for the balance of her deposit that was $200 short. It took neither three years nor a trip to court, but otherwise her battle was similar to that of Pro Images' unhappy client. Finally, 90 days after the legal limit for returning deposits (which is now 45 days after the lease ends), Weitzner issued a check for the extra $200 plus the interest he'd neglected to include on the first go-round.

As the temperature began dropping, I reported on the dismal experience Cedar Reiner and Rachel Levy had last winter when the pilot light on their Wade Apartments furnace kept going out (October 17). On the positive side, Wade responded promptly whenever the couple called, the problem came down to working the kinks out of a brand-new furnace, and safety was never a problem (frostbite, maybe, but not safety).

That wasn't the story I heard when I wrote two columns (October 31 and November 7) about Godfrey Property Management. Although the first column focused on another dispute over a deposit (Godfrey not only withheld the tenants' $1,375 deposit, but charged $1,100 extra), what the columns really explored was the issue of property management.

I spoke with three sets of tenants– two former and one current– who had rented houses owned by Charlottesville resident George Minor but managed by Godfrey. All three groups claimed that repair requests were handled very slowly and that the properties were deteriorating because of the neglect. I visited each one and can attest that that the houses appear to be poorly maintained.

Karl and Mary Mattson, tenants of a Minor house on Lewis Mountain Road, claimed that they'd had a potentially catastrophic brush with carbon monoxide from a furnace full of ash; Godfrey denied knowledge of the incident. They also alleged that the electrical panel was "outside the house, not watertight, and so rusty we sometimes have to bridge the gap between screw-in fuse and power contact with tinfoil." Godfrey again denied knowledge of the problem, but Karl claims he delivered the repair request in person and even made a copy while there for his own records.

A new trend in some larger cities is to post signs outside rental properties that have fallen into disrepair, listing the owner's name. It's the old scarlet-letter technique, but when it comes to owners or property managers who decline to keep rental property in habitable condition, I'm in favor of doing whatever it takes to help them see the light.

Finally, last week (December 19) I wrote about James and Amy Vergis, tenants at the new Riverbend Apartment Homes at Pantops. The Vergises claimed that although the units are billed as luxury apartments because of many extras such as nine-foot ceilings and attractive floor plans, they're also noisy.

I spent two evenings at Riverbend, talking to not only the Vergises and their neighbors but to tenants in other buildings as well, and the majority (nine out of 12 tenants or sets of tenants, or 75 percent) said that they heard more noise than might be considered usual. A couple of the descriptions were fairly minor (one could hear the people above her walking), but the others ranged from somewhat to extremely intrusive.

Although developer Nathan Metzger had stated that sound insulation was "of extreme importance" to him, I had to wonder whether the complex's design went beyond the building code's minimum requirement. While huddling over Riverbend's blueprints with county building official Jim Schlothauer, however, I discovered that Metzger had indeed designated sound insulation that was above code– which left me to wonder why noise appears to be a problem.

After filing the column, I spoke with a friend in the construction business who pointed out that a finished building doesn't always match the architect's intention. For instance, the builder can install such things as fiberglass batting and resilient channels with more or less care and precision, and that's what determines, in the end, the building's sound quality.

I have no way of knowing whether that's what happened at Riverbend; all I know is that Metzger clearly intended to build apartments with good sound insulation.

Third Place: Sprint
Sprint starred in two columns over 11 months. The second (November 28) concerned a rather egregious billing error that Dayna Brazille discovered on her Sprint PCS (i.e., cellular service) bill. While tracking the mix-up through Sprint's bureaucracy to Horizon PCS, the Sprint affiliate that provides cellular service here, I got speedy answers from both public relations manager Jim Harlow at Sprint and his counterpart at Horizon.

That wasn't the case with the earlier column (September 5), which ended up being the most frustrating interaction with a business representative I've had in my career as the Fearless Consumer. The issue was the deposit a UVA student had been required to put down before she could get service; Sprint's procedures, at least in her case, seemed to include inconsistencies and errors.

Harlow immediately passed me up the line to his supervisor in Wake Forest, which is when I started feeling like Alice after she plummeted down the rabbit hole. To make a long story short, in the end I asked Sprint's head of public relations at its headquarters in Kansas City to spare me from ever again having to deal with Wake Forest. Mercifully, she agreed.

That was 2002. What's in store for 2003? You tell me.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.