Need trees trimmed? Don't let a scammer leave you hanging

Need trees trimmed? Don't let a scammer leave you hanging

A summer storm rumbles through town and knocks down several trees and limbs into your yard. While you assess the damage, a guy claiming to be a tree trimmer approaches you and your neighbors and offers to remove the debris for a low price.

Thinking “what a great deal!” — you agree, and give him a deposit to get started. A short time later, he says he needs to take a lunch break. Then he never comes back, and you’re out hundreds of dollars with tree debris still covering your yard.

“If they just show up, going door-to-door, you probably don’t want to do business with them,” says Gregory Whisenand, owner of Applied Tree Services in Fortville. “They’re not invested in doing business here for very long.”

Reputation is everything in the tree business, especially since tree contractors aren’t required to be licensed in Indiana, says Whisenand, a four-time Super Service Award winner, so he recommends checking multiple references before hiring. “I don’t solicit door-to-door,” he says. “I’ve never charged anyone upfront. Even if they offer to pay, I won’t take it until we’re done.”

Attorney General Greg Zoeller also advises consumers to avoid storm chasers and unsolicited offers, and says Indiana law requires home improvement projects exceeding $150 to be in writing.

In January, the AG obtained a default judgment against Spaulding’s Tree Experts and owner Steve Spaulding — named a 2013 Indianapolis Worst Contractor — to pay $206,182 in fines and restitution for allegedly scamming three elderly victims. Under the state’s Senior Consumer Protection Act, Spaulding must pay triple damages for exploiting residents aged 60 or older, Zoeller says.

While she wasn’t a victim named in the AG’s lawsuit, Carmel member Marilyn Marshall says Spaulding convinced her husband, Edwin, who has Alzheimer’s disease, to sign a $1,400 contract for work. “I was so furious,” Marshall says, adding that she’s glad the AG obtained the judgment against Spaulding. “I don’t think my husband would ever do it again,” she says. “He was so stunned by this.” Calls to Spaulding’s Tree Experts were answered, but the responder hung up when asked if Steve Spaulding was available.

Whisenand also advises verifying a contractor’s liability insurance directly with the company’s insurer and asking to be named an additional insured on the policy. “Get it directly from an agent, not from the individual,” he says. “That could be falsified very easily.”

And get more than one estimate if you think the price is too good to be true. “There’s no way to ballpark prices … every tree is different,” Whisenand says. “It’s going to range from a couple hundred dollars to a couple of thousand.”

Follow these tips to avoid getting taken by a unscrupulous tree trimmer:

• For jobs over $150, get a written contract with cost, description of work, start and finish dates, and contact information.

• Verify liability and workers’ compensation insurance directly with the contractor’s insurance company.

• Request a list of local references, and call them, so you can check a contractor’s reputation and work before hiring.


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