Predatory Practices Against Vulnerable Populations

A shadowy person in a hoodie sitting at a table with a handful of cash

Predatory practices are common around military bases. Young servicemembers and those in transition — either moving from base to base or preparing to separate or retire from active service — are easy targets. As soon as you pass the gates off base, you see “Pay Day Loans!” and “Buy Now! Pay Later!” There are numerous news stories and self-help guides about how to avoid predatory lenders. Like servicemembers, veterans are also targets. A big part of me believes these populations are easy targets because they sign up to protect and serve and do their jobs honestly so they believe everyone else will do the same. They are too trusting. The government has several programs in place focused on protecting servicemembers and veterans from predatory lending and practices. But we didn’t take those trainings.

Let me tell you our story about trust. My dear husband, Russ, always tries to see the good in people, even after they have shown they cannot be trusted. This has hurt him emotionally and financially. One of the more egregious times this has happened, it cost us more than $10,000.

Let’s start at the beginning. We live in a multi-family household, as I may have mentioned before. The house is a little on the old side and has three floors. The HVAC system, though newer, could not handle all three floors evenly. After consulting with HVAC installers, we decided that an attic system would be the best solution for our situation. We found an installer/company who came highly recommended through a friend and set up appointments for measurement and prep. They came out and took the measurements and presented an estimate, as is common with this kind of work. We were then told we needed to place a deposit to start the installation process. Although at the time that seemed slightly suspicious to me, my dear husband wrote the check and we thought we were all set. Then a week went by with no contact. Then a month. Then two. Then four. Russ had been calling/texting but was basically being ghosted. Then I discovered the “deposit” check was written for 60 percent of the HVAC system! What?! At that point, I started investigating the company and the installer. We came to learn that this individual had lied about being insured, licensed, and even having a verified business. We also learned that he took a cruise pretty soon after cashing our check.

One phrase I picked up from growing up during the Cold War is “trust but verify.” I didn’t verify this time, and it cost us. Usually, we are careful to vet anyone who might come into our home for a variety of reasons but mostly because we want to make sure we get what we pay for. Russ has been taken advantage of in the past by predatory lenders, military leadership, family members, and an ex-wife. I’m no stranger to scams either, but I try to verify everything unknown, especially for large sums of money. 

We were at a loss as to what to do since we had written a personal check. We went to our State’s Attorney’s Consumer Protection to see if we could get relief. While I did care about the money lost, I also didn’t want anyone else to get scammed by this guy. Again, no response after multiple attempts to contact him. It wasn’t until speaking about our ordeal with our couples’ therapist that she recommended a civil attorney. Even knowing that it would potentially cost us more money in the end, we decided to pursue it in civil court. Luckily, we secured a very good lawyer but it has been stressful, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking. Talk about no sleep! 

In the meantime, we still had no working air-conditioning or heat on the top floor and started the process again, this time asking for copies of insurance and licenses and verifying with the state license board. The cost of the system and installation had also increased significantly from our first attempt. Luckily for us, our new contractor made certain we would pay nothing until the job was completed and we were satisfied, which gave us time to finance the project. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, we have a working attic HVAC system. What a difference.

Our attorney was very thorough and was able to win our case, and I will say, our day in court was much faster than expected. The HVAC guy never showed and the judge awarded us all damages and attorney’s fees. We must still wait to receive any funds but, in time, we have high hopes that we will be able to recoup all the money stolen from us. And next time there is a big project, we know what to ask, where to verify, and what NOT to do.