For years, our colleague Karin Price Mueller has been covering the New Jersey-based owner of multiple questionable waterproofing businesses for the Newark Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column. In spite of the negative publicity, consumer complaints and court judgments, the operator kept operating, just starting up new companies with different names.
Then last fall, he started a GPS tracking company and — why not? — a bomb shelter business, complete with its own website (which has since vanished) claiming that “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.”
This caught the eye of a couple in Virginia, who contacted the company about putting a shelter in their backyard.
“He said all his reps were so busy that he had to come out to our home personally,” one of the homeowners tells Bamboozled.
And so the owner showed up on Dec. 27 with booklets and a sales pitch, which succeeded in convincing the couple to spend $21,000 on a shelter to be put in place in the spring. He even was so generous as to knock off the $395 “administrative fee.”
They took out a loan — at a bank recommended by the shelter business owner — and sent the business two checks; one for $2,000 and another for $13,500.
Then came the wait for the scheduled March installation date, which then got pushed to April.
“That date came and he said they were still behind and needed to wait until June,” recalls the homeowner, who says they then noticed that the company’s website was down to a single page, and that the toll-free phone number had been disconnected.
A quick Googling of the company (something they should have done before signing anything) turned up previous Bamboozled columns on this guy and his sketchy companies.
They finally got the owner on the phone in April and demanded a refund.
“He told us he would send a letter of agreement to us to sign and notarize and then send back,” says the homeowner.
We don’t need to tell you that this letter never came.
The owner then asked for a notarized letter requesting the refund so his lawyers could look it over.
That was more than two months ago, and the homeowners haven’t heard from the bomb shelter bozo since. Meanwhile, they are out $15,500 plus the interest they are paying on the portion of that money they had to borrow from the bank.
While Bamboozled began looking into this complaint, they received another letter from a consumer who’d paid $39,000 to the shelter company before doing any research on the company and its owner.
“He said he was having all these problems,” this second homeowner says about a recent conversation he’d had with the company’s owner. “He said, ‘You have every right to make the request [for a refund],’ but he was careful with his words and he never did say he would give me the refund,” Cox said.
Like the other customers, the owner is now asking for a notarized letter requesting the return of funds.
Before ever receiving a complaint about this shelter company, Bamboozled had confirmed with the state of New Jersey that it was not a registered Home Improvement Contractors in the Garden State. Following up on the Virginia story, a state official there said she believes that bomb shelters would fall under the state’s legal definition of contracting — “provided it exceeded the $1,000 threshold for requiring a license,” and that doing work without a license could be a criminal offense.
Neither the owner nor his lawyer would return Bamboozled’s calls or e-mails.
Meanwhile, the homeowners who are out thousands of dollars say they are each filing complaints against the company in their respective states, along with filing mail fraud complaints with the Postal Inspection Service.
Our favorite part of the story involves the operator of a legitimate shelter company who found out that his business’s photos were being used on the unrelated company’s website.
This guy called up the New Jersey company (when it’s phone was still working) and pretended to be a curious consumer.
“He said he’s made thousands of bunkers and he’s been doing this for eight years,” recounts the non-scammer. “When I told him who I was he hung up on me.”
Even better, when he called back and asked for the owner by name, the person who answered said there was no one by that name working there.