Bugged by pest control inaction

The Baltimore Sun

Elizabeth Pearsall's not quite sure which bugged her more: the nefarious little subterranean wood eaters threatening her home or the pest control firm that went M.I.A. after she paid the service bill.

I'll give you a hint: With a little help from the attorney general's office, the 62-year-old retired high school teacher eliminated one problem and kept the other.

But let's go back to the beginning, when Pearsall hired Memphis, Tenn.-based Terminix Pest Control Co. three years ago to zap the termite trouble she inherited along with her parents' 50-year-old Cape Cod in Randallstown.

At that time, she paid the corporate-owned branch in Owings Mills about $1,400 to treat the outside of her home and lay bait traps for the insects. In addition to the initial treatment fee, Pearsall also paid $570 for two years of service, which included a Terminix technician showing up occasionally to monitor for termites and bait the traps if necessary.

"The first year, they did exactly what they were supposed to do," said Pearsall, who kept meticulous notes of her Terminix interactions. "Every three months they showed up to monitor the traps. In the second year, they said that they only had to come out twice a year because termites aren't active in the winter. They said they'd be out in May and August.

"Well, May came and went and no one showed," Pearsall said. "I had to call to get them to come. Then August came and went and they didn't show. They only came when I called." (A Terminix spokesman, Clint Briscoe, did not contest her account.)

Instead of dropping Terminix out of frustration, Pearsall said she gave the company one more chance to do right. So she forked over $310 for one more year of maintenance.

Come May 1, Pearsall called to inquire about a service date and was told by the Owings Mills office that a technician would be out on May 23. Pearsall waited. By day's end, no technician.

She called and was told that someone would be out the following day. Nary a peep nor a buzz on May 24 from anyone save for the bugs and wildlife in her yard.

"I called Terminix and said 'That's it. I'm finished,'" Pearsall said. "'I'm canceling my service. You did not comply with the terms of your contract.'

"I asked for my money back," she added. And then she waited and waited and called and called. Almost a dozen calls later to corporate and the Owings Mills office and now well into July, there still was no refund in the mail despite repeated promises that the check was being processed, according to a log sheet that Pearsall used to write down numbers and names of people she spoke with.

On the July 9 notation, Pearsall wrote that the Owings Mills office said her check was denied because they didn't know her first name. A few phone calls later on July 25, the local office "swore that check was being processed in Memphis."

Fed up, Pearsall sat down and wrote a letter to the Office of the Attorney General about her Terminix problem. Pearsall snail-mailed to the OAG a copy of the log and letters she wrote to Terminix, and a copy was mailed to me, too.

Within a month, Pearsall said, the OAG mailed Terminix a letter to inform them about her problem and ask about possible resolution.

On Monday, Aug. 6, an OAG mediator followed up with a call to the Memphis headquarters. Coincidentally, I called Terminix HQ that same day, too.

By Tuesday morning, Pearsall happily reported that a $310 check from Terminix was overnighted to her home.

"In Ms. Pearsall's case, it is apparent that she did not receive the level of service she deserved, and for that we apologize," Briscoe said. "We are evaluating this particular case and are actively seeking solutions to ensure that situations such as this do not occur again in the future."

Briscoe said such complaints are rare, but encouraged customers who are experiencing service problems to contact their local branch to allow "their needs and requests to be addressed in the most efficient manner."

(Poor Pearsall must have hit a really rare streak of bad luck since she called the local office and headquarters for nine weeks to no avail.)

Even after she received her refund, a local Terminix rep called to come collect their bait traps. (The company already took those back in June, Pearsall said.)

The point of all this isn't that Terminix seems beset by confusion. The point is that Pearsall used a service readily available to all consumers to solve her problem (with a minor assist from the newspaper): the OAG's Consumer Protection Division, which receives about 15,000 complaints every year.

Response time varies depending on the time of year and the complexity of the complaint, but the attorney general's office does address every complaint that comes through its office - whether it's to forward it to the right regulatory agency, offer mediation services or pursue legal action.

For instance, home repair issues are often forwarded to the state Home Improvement Commission, since they can yank an offender's license.

Some of you out there might think that your problem is too small or insignificant to contact the attorney general's office. Think again.

"We will certainly mediate anything," Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Bowman said. "It may only be a small dollar amount for you, but if a company is misrepresenting material information to consumers, it might be happening to a large number of consumers. That adds up, and it's something we want to address."

Even if there's nothing that you want done about a complaint, Bowman suggests contacting the OAG to share your problem or just to alert them to a problem business, possible fraud or other types of scams.

"It's good for us to know about a complaint for informational purposes because we use that to track different trends," Bowman said.

Just be sure when you file a complaint to describe your problem, detail how you would like the problem fixed and include copies (not the originals!) of any documentation that might be helpful.

"To be honest, when I wrote to the Attorney General, I wasn't expecting much," said Pearsall, who has since hired a local company to monkeystomp the pesky termites that are still around. "I truly never expected to get the money back. I didn't expect to get such fast response from the AG's office. It was a pleasant surprise."

On one final note, Briscoe said the speedy response time to Pearsall's problem wasn't due to outside influence. "We make every effort to resolve any customer issue as quickly as possible," he added. In fact, Briscoe said he had no knowledge of any communication to Terminix from the OAG at all.

(Of course. I'm sure it's just pure coincidence that Bowman's file on Pearsall shows a letter was sent to Terminix on Aug. 2.)

To file a complaint with the Maryland Attorney General's Office, go online to www.oag.state.md.us; call the hotline at 410-528-8662 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; or write to the Consumer Protection Division at the Office of the Attorney General, 200 St. Paul Place, Baltimore, 21202.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming

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