Sue over a negative review? NH1 News Investigates Dusty Old Cars of Nashua

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Celine McArthur introduces the story on Stephan Condodemetraky, owner of Dusty Old Cars in Nashua, New Hampshire

Stephen Kelly: “I’ve been had.”

Celine McArthur: “Do you think you’re ever going to see your car?”

Stephen Kelley: “No, I am sure it’s gone. It’s gone. But I don’t want others to feel this way, so let’s see what we can do.”

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Celine McArthur and Stephen Kelley

Stephen Kelley of Medford Massachusetts says he’s been scammed by a classic and vintage car dealer in Nashua. In October of 2015, Kelley handed over his 1970 Cadillac Deville convertible to Stephan Condodemetraky, owner of Dusty Old Cars, to sell on consignment.

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Picture of Stephen Kelley’s car on Dusty Old Car’s website

“The pitch that was made to me from them was, we get a lot of traffic on our website for people who are looking for exactly what you’re selling, so if someone is looking for an antique car, they’ll come to us first,” says Kelley. He adds, “I was thrilled that they came and did all the work. They came, they got the car… and there were literally hundreds of pictures of that car on their website. I thought, these people really have their act together.”

In February of 2016, the convertible—priced at 8 thousand dollars—was listed as sold on Dusty Old Car’s website.

For months, Kelley emailed and called to find out when he would get the paperwork required to transfer the car to a buyer and when he’d get paid.

“About 30 emails back and forth going into March, April, May—always the same thing. Let me check the sales report and get back to you,” says Kelley.

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One sample of the email chain between Stephen Kelley and Dusty Old Cars

In response, Kelley filed a report with the Better Business Bureau, which gave Dusty Old Cars an “F” rating.

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The BBB review of Dusty Old Cars: F

He filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office and quickly discovered he was NOT the first to do so.

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“One of 43 outstanding complaints with this particular car dealer,” says Kelley.

Kelley also sent a warning email to Dusty Old Car’s customers using addresses listed on a mass email.

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Stephen Kelly’s email to Dusty Old Car customers. Addresses retrieved from a mass emailing from the business

That’s when Kelley got a response from Condodemetraky.

Condodemetraky on voicemail: “You know, it took about five minutes five minutes for me to locate you, sir. So, it’s going to take about five minutes for my attorney to locate you too. And then we’re going to come after you personally. That’s after we file the criminal charges with the police departments.”

We went to Dusty Old Cars to find out what’s going on with Kelley’s car.

final-doc-celine-talking-on-phone-at-window
Celine talking to Stephan Condodemetraky at the front window of his business. He wouldn’t come out of his office. During this call, I asked him about the status of Kelley’s car. He refused to answer.

The owner was inside the building, but wouldn’t speak to me in person. By phone, he told me to call his lawyer.

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Stephan Condodemetraky’s attorney: Ron Caron, Manchester

We did—for a week – with no response. So we went back.

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An employee approaches us as we search for Stephen Kelley’s car. We ask him about the convertible. He doesn’t have an answer.

He said no. As we looked for the car, an employee approached us.

Employee: You can get the microphone out of my face. I’d appreciate it.

Celine: We are here simply to get a very simple answer. Where is this car?

Employee: The car… is… uh… Well, I’m not sure where it is. I don’t know which car you’re talking about. I’d have to look into…

Celine: [pulling up a picture of  the car on iPhone]: Here, let me show you.

Employee: I actually have a job to do so you guys… [Employee walks away]

Because Kelley has NO IDEA where the car is and who may be driving it, he’s been paying the insurance, just in case.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s still my car and I’m still responsible for it,” says Kelley.

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Jim Steiner, Concord Attorney

“Until he has an actual bill of sale, and the title is transferred, if there was any damage to the car, he would be—he as the owner and seller—would be responsible for the damage that occurs,” says Jim Steiner, Concord Attorney.

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Lt. Nicole Armaganian, New Hampshire State Police

“And then to know that it could potentially belong to somebody else, they could do anything with it from committing crimes to selling pieces of it,” says New Hampshire State Police Lieutenant Nicole Armaganian. She adds, “If you have a valid inspection sticker you could sell that, the valid registration you could sell that. If someone has a stolen vehicle, and they need just the VIN plate on a valid vehicle that looks to be the same, they could do something like that.”

This is just the beginning of the story. We are committed to helping Kelley find his car or get paid.

If you’re an unhappy customer of Dusty Old Cars, you need to read the fine print of your contract. There’s a non-disparagement clause, also known as a gag order, in it that prevents you from saying anything negative about Dusty Old Cars—even if it’s true.  Our legal expert Jim Steiner says it’s far from a slam-dunk in court, but you may want to contact your own lawyer.

Senior Assistant Attorney General & Consumer Protection Bureau Chief James Boffetti tells us that they have nearly 50 open and active investigations against Dusty Old Cars. Boffetti can’t share any details about the investigation but says *if his investigators find that Dusty Old Cars –or any NH business—violates Consumer Protection Laws, they can take pursue civil and criminal charges.

  • If an individual is found guilty of a civil Consumer Protection Act violation, he or she can face penalties of up to $10,000 per conviction.
  • If an individual is found guilty of a criminal Consumer Protection Act violation—a misdemeanor—the maximum penalty is 12 months in the New Hampshire House of Corrections and a $2,000 fine per count.
  • If a business is found guilty of a criminal Consumer Protection Act violation—a felony—the maximum penalty is $100,000 per conviction.

doc-graphic-for-the-endingIf you’ve been ripped off by Dusty Old Cars, please send me an email or a message on social media.

We will continue to investigate this story.

On the radio: Sue over a negative review?

We continue our investigative series this week, with the goal of continuing to drive change in New Hampshire. So far, we’ve been able to expose a little-known problem called the “non-disparagement clause” in consumer contracts, get Home Advisor to drop contractor Joshua Garfinkle from its referral site, and help families get compensation and legal guidance. Now, we’re looking to drive legislative change. Listen in!

 

 

Sue over a negative review? NH1 gets answers. Part 3!

“It’s ripping people off. I don’t understand how you don’t feel bad about yourself? Knowing you’re ripping people off and you’re doing a bad job,” says Homeowner Laura Lacroix.

final story the couple lacroixAnother New Hampshire family breaking their silence… sharing their story about a local contractor they say not only ripped them off but is also trying to silence them with a non-disparagement clause – or gag order – in the fine print of their contract.

We bring you their stories tonight. We track down the contractor and we’ll show you how our investigation is driving positive change.

For Laura and Matthew Lacroix, renovating the basement of their Merrimack home was one of the last projects on their to-do list.

“We’re talking walls, doors, outlets, ceiling—basic no plumbing.”

Through the referral site Home Advisor, they hired contractor and volunteer firefighter Joshua Garfinkle and things begin on a positive note.

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“He was very pleasant in the beginning.”

But soon after work began on the two-week, $14,000 project, the Lacroix’s noticed some major safety issues.

“For me, it was the electrician. I don’t want to say that he didn’t know what he was talking about, but he’s just seemed like he always had to do research on something.”

For Laura, it was the stairs…

final story staircase

“When things start popping into my head and I start reaching out to Josh about various things and he starts exploding – either through email or through voice messages and it would just be brutal,” says Matthew.

“It’s ridiculous. He would say things that make you feel like you’re such a bad person,” says Laura.

What Laura and Matt couldn’t get from Garfinkle was a straight answer to an important but basic question: Are you doing the job up to code?

“He never responded to email and he never responded directly to the question,” says Matthew.

“No one ever came in to the house to inspect,” says Laura.

The Lacroix’s shared their frustration on Facebook, not realizing they signed a contract with that dreaded gag order, the non-disparagement clause.

“That’s sneaky. I read the contract,” says Laura. She adds, “I didn’t know what a non-disparagement means.”

Following our interview, the Lacroix’s decided to call in the town building inspector.

Turns out, their fears were justified.

final story building inspector“So this building inspector, having now gone through indicating that the wiring placement is wrong for electrical, the outlets are not to code, the stairway landing is not to code, the balusters are not to code, and the handrail is not done to code,” says Attorney Jim Steiner.

Which—according to Attorney Jim Steiner—means that it was Garfinkle who violated the Lacroix’s contract.final story contract

A contract Steiner believes wouldn’t hold up in court anyway—with the 75-hundred dollar minimum penalty for her Facebook review.

“It’s the kind of liquidated damages that the court would reject because it’s not tied to anything, any rational basis,” says Steiner. He adds, “This is somebody who can act as a general contractor because we don’t have licensing requirements for a general contractor and is trying to sneak in under the radar, do work without disclosing it to the building inspector, do it not to code, get some money and run off leave the homeowner in the fix.”

FINAL STORY 4 SHOT.jpgFor the Lacroix’s and all of the families who have asked us—on and off camera—for help to get answers, we went looking for Garfinkle.

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His home and business addresses in Salisbury and Canterbury—listed on court and other public records documents aren’t—current.

FINAL STORY DON NASON.jpgOne is vacant, the other sold at auction months ago. But with the help of Private Investigator Don Nason, we finally tracked him down.

final story celine talking to garfinkle 2“Joshua Garfinkle, Celine McArthur, NH1 News. I’d like to talk to you about the non-disparagement clauses you have in your contracts. Why do you feel you need them? (No response) Some of your clients feel like it squashes their constitutional right to free speech. (No response. Garfinkle gets into his car and slowly tries to pull out of driveway) Some customers say they’re worried for their personal safety and financial security because of threats you’ve made on text messages and voicemail. (Garfinkle backing up car) Do you think this is conduct appropriate of a New Hampshire entrepreneur and first responder?  Do you have anything you want to say? (Garfinkle drives off)

final story celine talking to car“What could he say that wouldn’t get him in trouble,” says Steiner. He adds, “What it suggests is someone who is willing to go to a couple of different degrees of deception to hide from a disgruntled customer, to hide from any kind of official inquiry, to hide from being discovered because it appears that he has a lot to run from.”

final story 2 shot with steiner.jpg “There are a lot of things to find on Joshua Garfinkle—you have to be looking for them,” says Nason.

Another unsatisfied customer in New Hampshire – Melody Smith—says she was recently awarded a judgement of more than 5 thousand dollars in small claims court. Garfinkle hasn’t paid, so a warrant for his arrest is in the works. Digging deeper, we discovered that he’s been arrested twice—once for driving with a suspended license in an unregistered car. The other—on a warrant for issuing bad checks.

final story garfinkle mug 1“Sometimes you don’t know people as well as you think you know them,” says Nason.

“Without exposing him, he can just run amuck around the state of new Hampshire or elsewhere in New England,” says Steiner.

And for the Lacroix’s, they hope this story will force referral sites—including Home Advisor—to change the way they operate.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s the whole purpose of your site. People can go and find trusting contractors for people to work on their homes, their yards, that’s what we depend on sites like that for,” says Laura. Matthew adds, “It’s a loophole in their website. It’s a massive loophole.”

Thanks to our story – Home Advisor says “Josh Garfinkle has been terminated from our network and we are working with the affected homeowners.” Plus, “We are adding a clause to our T&C’s that prohibit service professionals from requiring non-disparagement clauses in homeowner contracts.” Do you have something you want me to investigate? Send me an email or message on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Sue over a negative review? NH1 News gets answers and results: Part 2

“This kind of story reaches into every corner of the state of new Hampshire. Middle class people who have bought homes and are trying to make some kind of improvement to their homes, need to have the kind of comfort and protection of knowing that the contractor they hire is somebody who is going to be reputable. Your work is exposing the fraudulent ones out there and they’ve got to be exposed.” –Jim Steiner, Attorney

Steiner for part 2.jpgTonight, we continue our NH1 News Investigation – Sue for a negative review?

The issue – non disparagement clauses, or gag orders, in contracts.

We first told you about a woman who was scared into silence by a contractor who took her money but didn’t do the job.

She came to us, pleading for help to warn you about that little-known practice.

Acting on a tip, we found the contractor and other homeowners who say the same thing happened to them.

Some too afraid to talk to us on the record—but not all.

That led us on a hunt for answers.

“You need to trust your contractor. You need to assume that that person is going to come in and do the right thing. To have people like that out there, that have no intention of doing the right thing. They just want your money and that’s got to stop,” says Homeowner Linda Lavallee.

linda for part 2Linda loves to buy and renovate homes, taking plenty of pride in the finished product.

“It’s exciting, we do our work to code, we make sure that they’re safe houses, I’d like to think that may grandchildren could live there. 22:12 and it’s a safe place.”

She hired contractor Joshua Garfinkle and his company, NHCRS to do some of the work and liked her first impression.

garfinkle graphic“He appears to be a nice man, an honorable man, an honest man, a hard-working man,” says Linda.

Her opinion changed after she says Garfinkle botched her kitchen floor…

“It was a tripping hazard, an actual tripping hazard.”

… And failed to properly fix a support beam under a bathtub.

floor joist for part 2.jpg“Josh claims that he did the floor joist repair to code. Multiple times he was asked if it was done to code, and he responded it was to code,” says Linda. She adds, “Only when I had a building inspector come in—he said no way, that’s not to code.”

“What would happen if some little kid was in the bathtub and the floor gives way? It could happen!”

crazy text for part 3When challenged, Linda says Garfinkle became combative in text messages and deceptive in emails—including this one claiming to be from Sanford Fenster from NHCRS “Contracts and Compliance.” There was one problem with that message.

“I later found out that the person who wrote the letter has been deceased for over seven years,” says Linda.

So, Linda hired a lawyer, but she didn’t get far.

“By the time I paid the attorney to find out that there was nothing I could do, and on top of the monies that I had already paid him and the monies I had to spend in order to fix what he had done, it was a huge amount of money,” says Linda.

montage of damage for part 2.jpgAbout 7 thousand dollars in all. She’s moved on, but not before filing a report with the Better Business Bureau and writing a review on the NHCRS Facebook page. Turns out, Linda’s contract did not include the gag order.

“He obviously had enough issues with people complaining and trying to verbalize their complaints that he had to find a way to stop them. And apparently, he found a way,” says Linda.

She only agreed to share her story—on camera—to help others who can’t.

“It’s a nightmare and he has to be stopped! It’s only because of this woman –with her hands tied—who can’t do anything to get her money back, and can’t do anything to stop him from doing it to someone else—that I’m willing to do this,” says Linda.

Up next—we track down Garfinkle to get some answers. We’ll also show you how our investigation is already driving positive change.

 

 

Sue over a negative review? NH1 News gets answers and results: PROMO

If you rely on customer reviews when you hire someone or buy something online, then you’ll want to watch this investigation. What we discovered in the fine print of one NH contractor’s contract, may have you wondering if you’re getting the full picture on sites like Amazon, Yelp, Home Advisor and Angie’s List. The two-part series: Wednesday and Thursday night on NH1 News at 10 on WBIN-TV.

Start here: Sue over a negative review? What you need to know.

 

Sue over a negative review? What you need to know.

“The consumer wants to have confidence that when they review these sites, what they’re getting is honest feedback.” – Jim Steiner, Attorney

With technology at our fingertips, chances are you rely on customer reviews—the good and the bad—to help to you decide what to buy or who to hire. One New Hampshire woman says she was scared into silence by a contractor she says took her money but didn’t do the job.

imageTurns out, the woman signed a contract, which—in the fine print at the bottom—states that she can’t say or post anything negative about her experience–even if she’s telling the truth.

If this non-disparagement clause sounds familiar—like you’ve seen it on TV recently—it may be because Donald Trump used it with at least one of his campaign workers. Here’s a clip from a CNN story: 

Jeanne Moos/CNN: “Some have speculated that Corey Lewandowski couldn’t say anything bad because…..”

Lewandowski: It’s been an honor and a privilege.

Trump: “I think Corey is terrific…”

Lewandowski: “I am so thankful for this chance….”

Jeanne Moos/CNN: “Because he signed this confidentiality agreement with a no-disparagement clause, you hereby promise and agree not to demean or disparage publicly the company, Mr. Trump, any Trump company.”

Afraid of being sued, the New Hampshire woman called us hoping to find a way to warn others who may be looking for a contractor do home renovations. We went through the contract with our legal expert Jim Steiner. While you may think this woman is protected by the First Amendment, Steiner says this unscrupulous person’s right to free speech would likely cost her a lengthy legal battle.

 “This kind of clause might be deemed enforceable because it has at least been written to go both ways between a customer and the contractor,” says Attorney Jim Steiner.

Fair or not, these contracts can stand up in court.

“Both of us agree to this so there’s valid consideration, so when you contract away your right to say negative things about me, I have contracted away my right to say negative things about you,” says Steiner.

And even in the right, this woman could still be a lawsuit target.

“Could that person sue her for defamation? The answer is yes. Unfortunately, after months and months, could she be found not to be liable because what she said was substantially true? That answer is yes, but nobody wants to go through either hiring a lawyer or trying on their own to prove the truth,” says Steiner.

That’s why we’re not identifying the woman.

We are sharing what we can because this no-negative review clause is a serious issue.

So serious, that the United States Senate recently passed Senate Bill 2044 – The Consumer Review Freedom Act – that would make those clauses illegal if they muzzle fair comment.

“It would free consumers to make honest reports on an Angie’s List, other kinds of filtering reporting service, free from any potential liability,” says Steiner.

It went to the House in December 2015. That’s where it remains tonight. The House introduced a bill with the same purpose in April. While lawmakers hash this out, Steiner says consumer review sites should do more to educate people on businesses that have—and enforce—these clauses that stifle negative customer reviews.

“Maybe the filtering company – like an Angie’s List – ought to indicate that we will not allow vendors who require these non-disparagement clauses in their contracts to be included,” says Steiner.

I contacted Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor, Amazon, Yelp and the Better Business Bureau to find out what their policies are on hosting reviews for businesses who operate this way.

  • From Angie’s List:  “In the type of situation you’ve described, we would consider this a “gag order” and this is prohibited through our policies for service providers listed on Angie’s List.”
  • From HomeAdvisor: “We highly discourage that practice from our pros and if we find out about it, we will consider terminating that pro from our network. Additionally, if a homeowner has signed an agreement like that, we disregard it and will post the review.”
  • From Yelp: “We don’t have any systematic way of knowing if a business has non-disparagement clause in a service agreement, but when these are brought to our attention by users who have faced legal action, we may place a legal alert on that business’ page.”
  • Better Business Bureau: “Businesses that do use them may find this information disclosed on their BBB Business Review on bbb.org so that potential customers are warned of the practice. BBB Accredited Businesses cannot use such clauses under the “BBB Code of Business Practices.”

If you’ve had a negative experience with a contractor—or any business—and you want it made public, Steiner says you can file a lawsuit.

“When you initiate a lawsuit against a defendant in court, you have an immunity for being sued for defamation. As long as what… it’s assumed what you’re saying is truthful. Substantial truth will win out over the clause,” says Steiner.

We will continue to follow this story for you. We also want to hear what you think about the non-disparagement clause.  Take the poll on NH1.com.  Also, send me an email me or send me a message on Facebook or Twitter to keep this important conversation going.

 

 

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