ST. PAUL, Minn. - A local contractor has been taking down payments, failing to do promised work and then refusing to give refunds, according to interviews with customers and records reviewed by KARE 11 Investigates.
KARE 11’s undercover investigation also turned up evidence the contractor makes questionable claims about his license to do business, about Better Business Bureau accreditation and about awards he’s won.
“We won the Best of Minneapolis eight years in a row,” Chad Thompson said during a sales pitch he didn’t know was being recorded.
Thompson owns Minneapolis based Alpine Fence Company.
“And now we’re in the Hall of Fame,” Thompson boasted. “The Hall of Fame is for businesses that have won the Best of (Minneapolis) more times than anyone else. And now we’ve done it!”
KARE 11 began investigating Alpine Fence after receiving complaints from several of the company’s customers who claimed they’d been misled and ripped off.
“He needs to stop it,” a clearly frustrated David Plante of Minneapolis told KARE 11.
Plante said it’s been a year since he signed a contract with Alpine and put down a $2,597 deposit. But he still doesn’t have his fence.
“I signed the contract in mid-May,” Plante said. But throughout the summer of 2015 Plante says Alpine missed repeated deadlines with little explanation. So, he decided to cancel the contract and ask for a refund.
“I decided in early August, after he missed a number of deadlines, to cancel the contract.”
That’s when Plante says he discovered he’d just lost much of his down payment.
“At which point he was very quick to get back to me and let me know that if I cancelled the contract it would be subject to a 50 percent restocking fee,” Plante recalls.
To date Plante still doesn’t have his fence. He says he hasn’t received any of his down payment, not even the nearly $1,300 left once you subtract the so-called restocking fee.
“And so here I am waiting!” Plante said.
When Plante asked KARE 11 to investigate back in March, we quickly discovered a number of other discrepancies about Alpine Fence Company.
Alpine’s website had a large Better Business Bureau logo on it that claimed Alpine was BBB accredited.
The same claim was made on Alpine’s contracts and business cards.
But it’s not true.
The BBB’s website showed Alpine is “not accredited.” There is also an alert posted about the “F” rated business for using the BBB logo without authorization.
“Their BBB accreditation was revoked (in May of 2015) due to a failure to honor an arbitration agreement and to resolve complaints,” said BBB spokesman Dan Hendrickson.
“Once they’re not accredited anymore, that logo should be removed in a timely manner,” he added. “We have informed the company they need to remove that logo. They have not done so.”
“Is that false advertising?” asked KARE 11 Reporter A.J. Lagoe.
“We feel it is,” replied Hendrickson, “It’s a trademark issue.”
Consumers like Joe Pavelko of Chanhassen told KARE 11 Alpine’s claim of BBB Accreditation duped them into a false sense of security.
“False advertising!” Pavelko said. “Obviously if we had of known that he wasn’t part of the BBB we wouldn’t have hired him.”
Pavelko hired Alpine in August, 2015. “September, October, November went by with no work being done and really no communication whatsoever,” he said.
Pavelko had paid Alpine an upfront deposit of roughly $6,000. When he informed Alpine that he wanted to cancel his contract and get his deposit back, he says owner Chad Thompson pointed to fine print in the contract that states if the customer cancels for any reason Alpine gets to keep half the deposit.
“He gets the deposit down, does no work whatsoever and then blames it on weather or just doesn’t even return a phone call until people want to cancel because no good or service has been given to the customer,” Pavelko fumes. “And then he tries to keep 50% of the deposit for doing nothing. For doing absolutely nothing and tries to rely on the contract to keep that money.”
Pavelko took Alpine and its owner to court and won a summary judgement for the return of his full refund. But, so far, he says he hasn’t collected a penny.
The Pavelko case is not the first finding against Alpine Fence Company’s business practices.
“It became very clear that something funny was going on,” recalls Sarah Scotland of Minneapolis.
Scotland hired Alpine in 2014 to fence in her yard. “It was imperative to get a hard install date so we could schedule the other contractors around the fence crew being here,” said Scotland.
“The install date came and went. No fence, no contact. I finally got ahold of Chad and was told it was a weather delay and this continued for several more weeks,” she recalled. “Unfortunately we could never get an install date out of Chad. Ultimately it came down to he wouldn’t return the deposit either, and wouldn’t provide an install date.”
Alpine Fence agreed to go to binding arbitration with Scotland. When Alpine failed to show proof that it had actually purchased any materials for her project, the arbitrator ruled Scotland should get her full deposit back.
In a blistering ruling, the arbitrator wrote, “I find it very unreasonable for a company to try and use a provision … to try and gain a payout from a customer when they have done little to nothing to actually fulfill their contract.”
“It appears that the only effort made by Alpine was to sign a contract and avoid contact with the customer,” the arbitrator concluded.
Alpine’s owner ignored the binding arbitration and still refunded Scotland only half her of $1,430 deposit.
“Dealing with a company like Alpine is quite infuriating,” said Scotland. “It’s just very frustrating. I like to consider myself a savvy consumer and I feel like I got scammed.”
KARE 11 goes undercover
After hearing multiple customer’s complaints, KARE 11 decided to go undercover to see for ourselves if Alpine Fence would give us an honest sales pitch.
We invited Alpine to provide us with a quote on a fencing project at a Saint Paul home where we had placed hidden cameras throughout the yard.
Owner Chad Thompson showed up himself to give the estimate. As he began measuring the yard, KARE 11’s A.J. Lagoe asked him about his business.
Lagoe: “Tell me a little bit about your company.”
Thompson: “Ok, Alpine Fence, I started it myself in 1997. I’m the only owner.”
Lagoe: “I wanted to make sure I was dealing with license and insured.”
Thompson: “Yup, licensed and insured.”
Lagoe: “So you’re good to go for here?”
Thompson: “Licensed, bonded and insured.”
Records indicate that’s not true. The City of Saint Paul requires fence contractors to hold a city license. But records show Saint Paul suspended Alpine’s license in 2008 for failure to provide proof of insurance.
Lagoe: “Do you do a lot here in Saint Paul?”
Thompson: “Less here. It’s more on the west side, ok, but I’ve done a lot of projects here. It’s probably 70/30.”
We wondered if Thompson meant his company has a state contractor’s license. Although Minnesota doesn’t require fence contractors to be licensed, we checked with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry to see it Alpine had a general contractor’s license. The state has no record of Alpine Fence or owner Chad Thompson holding a state contractor’s license of any kind.
What’s more, the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State showed Alpine’s business registration has been “inactive” since 2013. (SCREENGRAB OF SOS website for alpine) Technically, that means the company can’t legally do business anywhere in Minnesota.
And what about those “Best of Minneapolis” awards Thompson says Alpine has won? When asked about the source of those awards, he said they were from “BESTOFMINNEAPOLIS.COM.”
KARE 11 checked online and couldn’t find a listing for that website. It’s another reason why Alpine Fence Company customers are screaming foul. “It actually makes we want to go buy an award for myself that makes me the best of Minneapolis,” said David Plante.
Asking for an explanation
As Thompson continued his back yard sales pitch, Lagoe asked if Alpine was affiliated with the Better Business Bureau.
He responded, “Yeah,” nodding his head in the affirmative. That’s in spite of the fact the BBB has given Alpine an “F” rating and revoked its accreditation.
After hearing Thompson make a series of questionable claims, Lagoe told the contractor just who he was talking to.
Lagoe: “I do have to tell you I’m a reporter with KARE 11 and we got some questions for you because we’ve heard from a number of customers that you’re taking their money and not building a fence.”
Thompson: “That’s not true. It’s not true.” He quickly grabbed his equipment and rushed back to his car.
Lagoe: “We want to know why you’re taking people like Sarah Scotland’s money when she had binding arbitration against you and you don’t pay her?”
Thompson: “We’ve resolved the issue with Sarah Scotland.”
Lagoe: “You haven’t resolved the issue, that’s the point.”
Thompson: “Yes we have, we’ve refunded her.” Even though he has failed to honor the arbitrator’s finding.
Lagoe: “How come you told me you’re BBB certified when you’re not?”
Thompson slammed his car door and drove away without replying.
KARE 11 repeatedly offered Thompson the opportunity to do a scheduled interview and explain his side of the story. He refused, but in both phone calls and text messages repeated his claims that Alpine is licensed, insured and BBB approved. To date, no proof has been provided. Since we began investigating, however, Alpine has removed the BBB logo from its website.
KARE 11 has confirmed that Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office has launched an investigation of Alpine Fence Company after receiving multiple consumer complaints.
Recommendations for consumers
According to the BBB, here are 10 things everyone should do before hiring a contractor:
1. Research their track record. Contact BBB to obtain free Business Reviews on any company you are considering hiring. Visit bbb.org or, in Minnesota and North Dakota, call toll-free at 1-800-646-6222.
2. Solicit multiple estimates. Shop around and get at least three estimates in writing. Use BBB’s Online Directory of Accredited Businesses.
3. Verify license and insurance. Ensure that companies are properly licensed. In Minnesota, contractors should be licensed or registered with the Minnesota Department of Labor (doli.state.mn.us), in North Dakota, with the ND Secretary of State’s Office (sos.nd.gov/). You should also make sure they are fully insured.
4. Ask for references. Get references from three recent projects and verify them before signing a contract.
5. Inquire about a lien waiver. A lien waiver is a statement from the contractor that all suppliers and subcontractors have been paid for their work. Be sure to ask whether the contractor will provide you with a lien waiver upon completion of the work.
6. Don’t forget building permits. Permits are for your protection and help ensure that work will meet local building codes. Check with your contractor before starting your project. Homeowners bear the cost of building permits, but companies should be responsible for obtaining any necessary permits.
7. Consider future service issues. If you choose to do business with a company that isn’t local, you might have difficulty resolving any warranty or service needs that may arise after the project is completed.
8. Get everything in writing. Do not allow work to begin without a signed contract that includes: start and completion dates; a detailed description of services to be provided; any costs or allowances; a payment schedule and warranty information. Be aware that anything you sign is a contract.
9. Don’t rely on verbal promises. Any promises made orally should be written into the contract, including warranty information.
10. Arrange a payment schedule. Never pay in full in advance of a project. Stagger your payments according to agreed-upon stages of work completion and make a final payment only when work is finished.
BBB also advises consumers to exercise caution with salespeople who are going door-to-door claiming to be doing work in your neighborhood. Always know who you’re dealing with; verify the company’s track record with BBB.