Fraud/scam versus "aggressive sale". What's your take on this situation?

There was currently in the news in the Boston area where an old man hired a three-man team to clear snow from the roof of his house, garage, walkways, and porches, as well as de-icing his gutters.

This apparently took about 6 hours, and they charged him $4,800. It’s not clear from the story how many men were involved; the first story just mentions the father and two sons who run the contracting business, while in the second story one of the sons says that the work involved the two sons plus five other hired workers.

After the customer handed over the money, his daughter called the police, who threatened to arrest the men unless they returned all except about $250 of the money. In the follow-up story, the guy who ran the operation defended himself, calling the procedure “aggressive sale” and denying that he scammed anyone.

Initial story
Later story

I’m not quite sure how i feel about all this. On the one hand, that does seem like a lot of money to clear some snow, even if it’s a lot of snow. On the other hand, the initial story did make it sound like the customer agreed to the price up front. If you agree to a price for a job before the job is done, then should you really be protected by the police from the consequences of your own decisions?

Of course, it’s possible that the story’s implication is wrong, or that i’ve misread it. The guys who did the work appear to have something of a reputation as scam artists, and it seems much more likely that they started the work without agreeing on a price, and then hit the customer with a big bill at the end. Still, even in those cases, it strikes me as pretty silly of the customer not to agree on a price before the work is done. I think that you should do this before any type of service. I recognize that sometimes it’s not clear exactly how much work needs doing, but there should be some agreement that prevents the person doing the work from simply carrying on and then charging whatever he wants.

I’m also somewhat perplexed at the role of the cops here. They not only threatened the people who did the work with criminal charges, but apparently also dictated the price for the work - $250. But even if it was only the three guys doing the work, 3 guys for 6 hours is a total of 18 man-hours, or less than $15 per hour per man. Maybe that’s the going rate for snow shoveling on roofs, maybe it isn’t, but i’m not sure that the cops should be determining what the rate is. Also, if the claim in the second story is true, and it was a total of 7 people doing the work, then they earned only about $6 per hour per worker.

Personally, i think that if the cops felt that the workers committed fraud or some other illegal act, they should have arrested them, no matter what happened with the money. And if they had nothing to charge them with, then they shouldn’t be interfering in a private business transaction. If i were the guys who cleared the snow, and i had, in fact, told the customer beforehand how much the job would cost, i’d be tempted to tell the cops to come and arrest me.

I know, the guy was old, we have to protect the elderly from scams, etc., etc. But if we really believe that this should be a general principle, then isn’t the logical conclusion that old people (say, people over 70, or something similar) should be prevented from making contract themselves, in much the same way as children are? Society’s position on this right now seems to be, “Old people are independent and can take care of themselves, until they fall for a stupid scam. In those cases, we need to protect them from their own credulity.”

Anyway, i’m not completely wedded to my position, and i realize that this is a tough issue with many borderline cases, so i thought i’d start a thread about it.

The contractors have rap sheets as long as my arm, so it’s hard to have much sympathy for them. At the very least, they ought to be incarcerated for using a phrase like “aggressive sale”, which is, I believe, a grammatical felony.

As for the police involvement here, I can only guess that maybe they thought it would be better to get a quick refund for the scammed elderly citizen than to pursue criminal charges that may or may not stick. Perhaps a little Mayberry-eseque, but the end result is a good one, and little Opie now knows to write his essay about his father, the Hero-Sheriff.

seems fine to me - charge him what you should have charged him or we’ll charge you with a crime.

i don’t see the problem. if the shit shoveler had a problem with paying what the police deemed to be fair, he could have always refused and taken his lumps from the DA.

One of the rules of proper English is that “I” is capitalized, as is the first letter of each sentence.

So what the heck is wrong with the posters in this thread?

But all this begs the question of what actually constitutes a “fair” price, and to what extent we should intervene after the fact to rescue people from the verbal contracts that they make.

I realize that the contractors aren’t very sympathetic characters here, but the way that i avoid paying out $4,800 for some snow shoveling is to make sure that i agree to a price for the job beforehand, and that i only agree to a price that i believe is fair. Well, that and the fact that i live in Southern California. :slight_smile:

The police dictated a fair price of around $250. But at what point above $250 do we call for state intervention in such a contract? $500? $1,000? And all this ignores the fact that, even if the price was not agreed upon beforehand, the customer also had the option not to pay, with the contractor then left with the option of pursuing his legal remedies for theft of services or something similar.

Could be there’s a “Statute of Frauds” problem with an alleged verbal contract for $4,800.00…I dunno. Contracts was a long time ago, maybe there’s a wrinkle about a distinction between goods and services.

But what I expect actually happened here was the scammers got the guy to agree to hire them, without naming a price, did the work, and then “negotiated” the price with three or more burly and less than savory looking men surrounding the old man, maybe threatening him with liens on his home or theft of services charges…or even an old fashioned ass kicking…until the guy coughed up however much they thought they could get away with.

Then the cops did unto the scammers as the scammers did unto others. Cue the choir on “Circle of Life”…

If no price was agreed to at the beginning, why does the service provider get the monopoly on setting the price? It seems to me like it’d make more sense for the one contracting out to set the going rate. The old guy could have just said “Well, that bill is nice and all, but the price I had for this job was twenty bucks. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

you are acting as if fraud and unfair and deceptive trade practices are complete fiction, subject to the whims of a subjective prosecutor, foisted upon hard-working businessmen like a jackboot. they’re not, and this wasn’t a transaction that would in any way be considered arms length, conscionable, or anything related to “fair”. Dollars to doughnuts they knew they were dealing with a senile man, or they setting the price after the work had been completed and were coercing him into acquiescence.

The police dictated no such fair market. Rather, they dictated a price that would resolve the issue with a minimum of hassle for the huckster. The huckster was free to call the cops’ bluff and see what happened if they didn’t give the money back…

And no, you can’t ignore the fact that the customer was free to not pay, for its a simple fact that society at large has an interest in making sure that scumbags aren’t running around town defrauding people. It’s not enough to say “well, he could’ve just let these fraudsters take him to court” a little more active enforcement to preemptively address the fraud is warranted.

As for old people being barred from signing contracts, that isn’t really apt, either. It’s not like if a 45-year old guy was duped in the same way we would react any different. People get taken, and it’s just kind of stupid to set a blanket policy of requiring an attorney-in-fact to sign off on all transactions that people past a certain age threshhold need to be making - it’s probably more efficient to stamp out the fraudsters.

it would have been extra awesome if the cops had gotten the guys money back for him, and then just went ahead and charged them with some crime, anyway.

Well, precisely. As i said in my previous post, if no price was agreed upon beforehand, then the customer had the option to pay what he thought was fair and let the contractor pursue his legal remedies if he felt this was a breach of contract.

Also, assume for the sake of argument (because we have no way of knowing) that the customer agreed to $4,800 before the work was done. Does that change anyone’s opinion here?

Rumor_Watkins, you continue to beg the question of what “defrauding” actually constitutes here. Assuming both parties agree to a price, and agree before the work is done, precisely where should we draw the line?

I saw a computer on sale on my local Craigslist site a few days ago. It was a Dell Dimension 8200 with a CRT monitor. It was priced at $380. This computer/monitor combination might be worth 50 bucks. I have a Dimension 8300 here that i use as a home file server, and if i decided i didn’t want it anymore, i’d probably either donate it to my local YMCA or advertise it for $50 and be willing to take $40.

If someone bought the advertised computer, and found out later what a rip-off it was, should we knock down the sellers door and demand the money back just because the buyer failed to do his homework? I’m not asking whether it would be legally appropriate to seek redress; i’m trying to understand what principles people feel should apply in situations like this.

I know it’s easy to paint the customer in the OP as a senile man, but i don’t actually recall seeing that term used in either of the articles. Neither of them said that he was mentally incapacitated or suffering from a disease that robbed him of his critical faculties. I realize that the notion that he is somehow incapacitated makes your argument more sympathetic, but assume for a moment that he’s not. Does that change your position?

If Oakminster’s hypothetical, in which the contractors used threatening standover tactics, is what happened, then i completely support the cops. But again, we can’t necessarily assume that this is what happened either, no matter how much it conforms to what you wish to be true.

at unconscionability. and it’s not a precise line, that’s the entire point.

well in this case since the prospective buyer is the one making the initial contact, the improper valuation isn’t really pertinent.

no, he’s not senile. but they didn’t set the price before starting to work. which was the second of my 2 doughnut statements. so no, it doesn’t.

I think the big presumption in all this is both parties were of sound mind and judgment and no coercement was going on.

“aggressive sale” puts a lot of doubt on the no coercement front, and if didn’t $4,800 for a roofing job puts a lot of doubt on the sanity front. Enough doubt that to ignore it would border on solipsism.

Ergo, basically it was a jackass taking advantage of a vulnerable person.

In Australia it could be termed demanding money with menace. Assertive sales practices are OK but when you cross the line to aggressive you are in trouble. Imagine the scenario if a couple of bikies rolled up to your door and insisted that they will mow your lawn and then said that will be $5,000.

Some people would call the cops but some would be so scared they would do anything to stop a fight.

Poor old bastard was scammed.

I think it would be a cinch to establish that if you were “bullied” into a contract, then it’s not a valid contract - oral or written.

I’m curious as to why that changes things so much for you.

Say these contractors had an ad in the yellow pages, and the old guy called their number for snow clearing, and then everything else went exactly as described in the article. Would you change you mind about what the consequences should be?

Assuming facts not in evidence. Nowhere in either article does is say when the price was first mentioned. In fact, the first article says:

Reading that paragraph, it actually makes it sound like he agreed to the price before the work was done, although it’s not made clear whether this was actually the case.

I know an elderly person who is kind of losing it, got a call from some company out of state offering ‘discounts’ on prescriptions, doctors visits, etc. - for a fee, of course. When you enroll, they’ll send you a card. The thing is, not all pharmacies etc. accept this card. She’s already got pretty good insurance coverage, Medicare, etc. … There’s a website, a couple of phone numbers, a street address, and I really can’t find much on them. Googled the phone numbers, found a couple of vague accusations of ‘scam’ but nothing definite.

So what I want to know is how do I find out if this company is a scam, meaning who should I contact? Should I call the old person’s mail order prescription company, or her primary care doctor, or the county or state? If the old person bought this with a credit card over the phone, should I call the credit card company?

Sincerely,

Don’t Know Nuthin’

Tough one, in Australia we could call Dept. of Consumer Affairs. They could [and probably would] investigate pretty quickly. Don’t know if the USA has a similar body, but ours has pretty sharp teeth. Also calling 60 minutes etc pays off, well the threat can sometimes get your money back!