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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

Gaming the System: Part 2 – The Scam

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

In “Part I – How Much is Too Much?”, the COURIER described how an elderly Claremont couple, the Roberts, came to be mixed up with Rooter Hero, a California and Arizona plumbing company with 10 locations.

We delved into scathing reviews from consumers and former employees detailing allegations of fraud, and into a revealing 37-page California State Contractors License Board document detailing scores of accusations of wrongdoing with respect to the company’s business practices.
Yes, online reviews are to be viewed with a jaundiced eye; it’s common to game the system and attempt to discredit your competitors with fraudulent negative reviews.

So, the COURIER went to the source and talked to two ordinary consumers who came to be entwined with the company.

One, 34-year-old Glendora resident Jenna Tennyson, had some less than flattering lasting impressions of Rooter Hero.

It’s not our problem

“If I left a review, it was prior to the job being done and I would retract it if I could. They are awful,” Ms. Tennyson told the COURIER through Facebook Messenger.

Ms. Tennyson was referencing a Google review she posted about Rooter Hero. She went on to describe a repair job involving a backup prone, leaky toilet. Rooter Hero’s tech said the toilet was faulty, and charged Ms. Tennyson $1,000 to replace it with a new one.

But before she was allowed to pay, the tech told her she needed to leave a Google review for the company.

“And they didn’t leave until I did,” Ms. Tennyson said. “Actually, if I remember correctly, it was part of the process upon payment. You couldn’t pay until you left the review. It was all on their system, on their tablet.”

Here’s her Google review from a year ago: “Did a wonderful job repairing our massive plumbing issue at work. Thank you so much guys!”

“Honestly, I don’t even remember what I wrote,” Ms. Tennyson told the COURIER. “I remember it being so rushed and weird. Like I had to leave a review in order to get to the screen to pay.”

Days later the new toilet was still having the same issues, so she called another plumbing company. That tech removed the newly installed toilet to reveal it was mounted on a wax ring that was sitting over a 4” drain that was half-occluded by a protruding concrete foundation, Ms. Tennyson said.

A reasonable person would assume this kind of glaring, obvious problem would surely have been noted by Rooter Hero’s tech once he saw it. And, if not, once the tech learned the customer was aware of it, one would think he would have returned and fixed the problem, or offered another solution. That was not the case.

Ms. Tennyson reached out to Rooter Hero after the second plumber pointed out the obvious reason the toilet wasn’t functioning properly, “and then they didn’t cover the problem because it ‘wasn’t their problem,’” she told the COURIER.

‘I’ll throw something in for you’

Rooter Hero’s detractors also include Roseville, California residents Erin and Tim Malispina, who posted a cautionary review on Facebook in February, warning potential customers away after very nearly spending $2,500 on a simple repair another local plumber ended up doing for $180.

Like the Roberts’, the Malispinas Googled “24-hour plumber near me” the evening of February 18 after their shower would not stop running, and Rooter Hero popped up at the top of the search.

A Rooter Hero tech arrived, “Then he takes a look and after maybe 10 minutes, he’s like, ‘Yeah we can’t fix this. This has to be all ripped apart. We’ve got to go into the back wall and tear out the drywall, re-do the entire [shower plumbing], and then fix it that way,’” Mr. Malispina said. “Then he pushes that little piece back on extremely tight, and he tells me it’s going to be $1,800.”

The Malispinas didn’t have that much liquid cash on hand.

“And he said, ‘Well, we can finance it. But I can’t finance anything less than $2,500,’” Mr. Malispina recalled. “I was like, ‘Why would I finance $2,500 if it’s an $1,800 project?’ And he said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll throw something in for you; do you need a sink or a toilet?’”

Tired and startled by the sudden prospect of going into debt to the tune of $2,500 to repair what seemed to them to be a simple fix, the Malispinas nevertheless reluctantly agreed to have the tech return the next day to do the job.

But something just didn’t sit right, and Ms. Malispina phoned her aunt, who’s knowledgeable about such things. She referred her to a Rocklin outfit, Whest Koast Plumbing, that sent out its tech Joseph Rippley the next morning.

“He was in there for maybe 20 minutes, and he’s like ‘Oh yeah I can fix this right now. I’ve got the part inside my truck,’” Mr. Malispina said of Mr. Rippley. “He has this little puller to the get the piece out. He said, ‘Man, that guy really jammed that in there. I had trouble pulling it.’ He got it out, and in 30 minutes tops he was in my house, finished the project and done for $180.”

Mr. Rippley installed a new shower valve cartridge, a part that cost about $40. He saw no water damage, dry rot or mold, conditions which could have prompted the removal of drywall.

“This job was a simple, obvious thing, and [checking the cartridge] is one of the first things you’d look at,” said Whest Koast owner Charlie Hopkins. “This is typical fare of misdiagnosis, overpricing the consumer and hard pressure sales. People just can’t say no sometimes. I cannot believe how many times I tell people, ‘You have a resource with the contractors state license board. They will do everything. They’ll help you file the paperwork. They’ll return your money or fine them, and keep them from doing that stuff.’ But people will not do it.”
Clearly though, some have.

Following an investigation into numerous consumer grievances filed with the California State Contractors License Board, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a formal complaint against Rooter Hero on March 19, 2021.

Case number N2019-298 lists 51 “calls for discipline” dating back to 2017, including allegations Rooter Hero “willfully or fraudulently contracted for work that was not required and overcharged for work performed,” “departed from accepted trade standards for good and workmanlike construction,” “willfully or fraudulently overcharged for work that was not required, causing a substantial injury,” “made substantial misrepresentations to” a California homeowner “in the procurement of the contract,” “performed unnecessary work in replacing the plumbing system that had no indication that it needed to be replaced,” “requested and received payment that exceeded the value of work or materials provided to the … project,” and numerous and sundry complaints of out of code work and other questionable business practices.

Proposed actions include the suspension of the contractor’s licenses of Rooter Hero’s owner and CEO John Akhoian (aka Oganes Akhoian), CFO Tamar Akhoian (who is presumably married to Mr. Akhoian), COO John Clinton Bergeron, and William John Beyermann, the company’s “responsible managing employee.”

A hearing date is forthcoming, according to Joyia Emard, Public Affairs Manager for the California Contractors State License Board.

Additionally, on May 7, 2018, in another California State Contractors License Board investigation into similar allegations of wrongdoing, then California Attorney General and now Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris ordered the CSLB licenses for Akhoian Enterprises Inc., John Akhoian, Tamar Akhoian, and William Beyermann be placed on probation for three years.

Case number N2015-270 stipulated each was ordered to post a $45,000 disciplinary bond or cash deposit. The order also prohibited John Akhoian or Tamar Akhoian from serving as an officer, director, associate, partner or qualifying individual on any contractor’s license during the period of probation.
So how is it that a company with a history of consumer complaints of fraud and abuse, one that in 2018 was reprimanded by the state contractor’s license board for same, and is currently under investigation for allegations of even more, still continues to rise to the top of the various online review platforms’ search results, with five-star ratings?

The answer is clear: it’s gaming the system.

Read part three of this series here.

 

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