Hamilton

Hamilton residents say door-to-door HVAC sales tactics are 'alarming'

Some Hamilton residents are sounding alarms after nearly signing up for what they think may have been a scam to replace their furnaces and HVAC systems for a steep price. The province said it is investigating.

Government says people should avoid salespeople trying to discuss HVACs and furnaces at your home

Cameron Groscki said the tactics used to try and sell him a furnace and HVAC system were "alarming" and fears they may have been part of a scam. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Some Hamilton residents are sounding the alarm after nearly signing up for what they think may have been a scam to replace their furnaces and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for a steep price.

The company in question says it is not fraudulent and has nothing to do with a scam but acknowledges staff may need more training and that there are bad actors in the industry.

"It was outrageous … I'm not a man of means, I'm on disability," said 36-year-old Cameron Groscki, who lives in the east end of the southern Ontario city.

The Hamiltonian said a pair of young, smiley people in bright-coloured construction vests and lanyards were knocking on doors in his neighborhood in early February.

He said the duo claimed the homes in the neighbourhood were eligible for an energy audit through a federally funded program. Groscki said he signed up for an appointment.

Jennifer Friesen, who lives a few doors down, answered the door around the same time, too.

She says the people showed her the Ministry of Natural Resources website and told her "they received a grant from the government to promote this grant program."

Friesen says she believed it was the federal government's Greener Homes Grant and she let them book an appointment.

"We had done the real program at our old house and I knew we were going to replace our furnace and air conditioning unit eventually," she said.

Government warns of door-to-door salespeople

The federal government warns of "energy scams" on its web page and says people should refuse any in-home inspection from a door-to-door salesperson.

"If someone is at your door or gives you a call and wants to talk about thermostats, water heaters, furnaces, or even replacement windows, it's most likely a scammer," the government said on its website.

"Your utility company, or any government agencies, have other ways to reach you."

Ontario also enacted a law in 2018 that only allowed businesses to enter into a contract at someone's home if they contacted the business ahead of time and invited them into the home for the purpose of entering into a contract.

A day after Groscki and Friesen got the initial knock on the door, they said they each got a visit from Brawn Bros. employees. 

The company, which has locations in Saskatchewan and the Greater Toronto Area, sells numerous products, including a program to rent furnaces and HVAC systems.

Groscki said after the employees inspected his furnace and air conditioning for free — which they claimed would normally cost $600. They gave him a certificate to show he was qualified for their program.

A Hamilton man says representatives from Brawn Bros. gave him this certificate while trying to sell him a furnace and HVAC system he could rent for a monthly rate. A day or two before getting the certificate, the man says representatives told him they were approved to offer an energy audit from the government. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

After they asked to look at his energy bills and deeming his furnace and air conditioning unit were old, Groscki said it turned into a sales pitch.

The Brawn Bros. workers said the program of $170 per month could save his family money.

The contract, he said, was for 15 years or until the house sold — a detail which Groscki and Friesen both say was only revealed after they asked. That means the program could cost someone $30,600.

Groscki and Friesen both say the employees also never said they were from Brawn Bros. until asked.

"It's alarming because of how they built up the sales … with very little information on what the actual cost was," Groscki said.

"They came into our house, they acted as though they were part of this official program and then we found out they're from a company … it was just very underhanded."

Friesen said some of the tactics included emphasizing it was a time-limited offer, it would increase the value of their home and she would see the rebate deposited in their bank account quickly.

"Even in the end, they kept evading questions," Friesen said. "It was definitely sketchy."

Company denies scam, says staff to get more training

The federal government's web page, which warns about energy scams broadly, also warns against signing contracts if someone offers an energy rebate, a free product or claim they can lower energy bills.

Brawn Bros. chief operating officer Braeden Astalos said his company follows the rules.

He said a marketing company goes door-to-door and tells homeowners there are energy rebates out there like the Greener Homes Grant and could apply for them.

If someone is interested in the rebates for products like HVAC systems, the marketing company will contact Brawn Bros. or other business after getting the homeowner's consent, according to Astalos.

Then a sales agent visits the home and tries to sell products.

He said had Groscki gone through with the sale, he would've received a follow-up phone call with all the details about the agreement.

"That's the only time we would ever proceed with an installation because we're so aware of what can happen with those bad actors and the reputation," Astalos said.

"We specifically go out of our way to confirm with every customer, prior to installation, they understand we are not part or affiliated with any government body."

After hearing about Groscki's experience, Astalos said he would ensure his staff and the marketing teams get more training.

"I'm disappointed to hear the customer was feeling misled in any way … you can't control what each individual person is going to say to that customer in that home, you try to control it of course," he said.

Astalos said the negative perception HVAC companies have can make it hard for companies doing the right thing to succeed.

Feds and province investigating allegations

Natural Resources Canada said in an email it was investigating the allegations. It said, on average, it receives one complaint each month about various companies misrepresenting the Greener Homes Grant.

Spokesperson Alycia Sevigny said the government sends businesses that do so cease and desist letters.

Natural Resources Canada said the Energy Consumer Protection Act can help protect people from scams.

Cristian Buzo Tingarov, the Minister of Government and Consumer Services' press secretary, said the ministry was also looking into the matter.

The ministry told CBC Hamilton it has received six complaints against a business named Brawn Bros. in 2021 and 2022.

The nature of the complaints and the outcomes of them are unclear, but the ministry said if an investigation is carried out and charges were laid under the Consumer Protection Act, it would be posted to Ontario's Consumer Beware List. 

Brawn Bros. is not on the list.

In response to the six complaints, Astalos said his company is committed to providing customers the best quality of service and it holds itself to "strict standards, protocols, and compliance measures to ensure that it operates in accordance with the law."

"We pride ourselves in the good work that we do, and we will continue to treat customer satisfaction as our top priority," he wrote in a statement.

The ministry said violating the Consumer Protection Act could lead to a $50,000 fine or two years or prison time for individuals, while corporations could face a $250,000 fine.

"We are continuing our work to inform and educate Ontarians about malicious behaviour and companies while exploring ways to further strengthen consumer protections," read a statement from the press secretary.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a reporter for CBC News in Hamilton. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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