HB#1, a contractor by trade, had found a company (which shall remain unnamed) that had exactly what he was looking for: a sleek, elegant solar panel you could self-install and mount on an outside, south-facing wall, and that would provide heat for at least part of the house. Compared to conventional solar systems, this one was a steal: only $1,800. With the subsidy, HB#1 calculated, we would get the whole thing for $1,300—the price of a good laptop.
Everything seemed fine—until the day when we were actually going to go through with the purchase. In preparation to pay with my credit card, I had transferred a $1,800 payment to the Visa account to cover the cost. But when HB#1 handed the phone over to me, he said, “The guy, Paul, tells me he only takes PayPal.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “WHAT?! I already put the money into my Visa account—I can’t take it out now!”
That didn’t happen until Paul emailed me a PayPal invoice. The email said, “Here is your PayPal request for one <brand name> solar panel and one installation kit. We have about an 8- to 10-week lead-time, but sometimes we can shorten or have extra systems on hand and we can shorten that lead-time. We are assuming that you are picking up the panel and kit.”
Two things jumped out at me:
- “We are assuming that you are picking up the panel and kit.”
- The PayPal invoice was a masterpiece of frugal verbiage. Instead of listing a solar panel and installation kit, it succinctly said, “Goods - $1,850.50.”
I wrote back, “Can you please specify what we’re buying for our money, and what do you mean we have to pick up the panel? Don’t you ship? Where is your company located?”
I wasn’t completely on red alert yet. With the exception of HB#1, who’s of above-average intelligence, some contractors are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. I guess I envisioned someone like Larry the Cable Guy--a little rough around the edges, but endearing.
My intestinal alarm bells were still ringing, though. I tried to find the same brand name product from other companies online and came across one that had discontinued the item. I called and got a nice guy on the phone who said he didn’t know why the solar panels had been discontinued, but he agreed that taking only PayPal and not shipping the panel sounded “pretty strange.”
Soon after, I got an email from Paul: a professional-looking invoice with the same masthead the website had and a specified list of our purchases. But the shipping question remained unanswered.
So I went back on the website. There it was: 370 North Street, Capetown, MA (address altered to protect the identity of the company). I didn’t like the prospect that we would have to drive all the way to Massachusetts to pick up a solar panel. What happened to shipping—you know, as in “big-ass truck stopping at your house and dropping off a large package”?
Directly below the address were the usual social-media buttons, so for shits and giggles, I clicked on the “Like Us on Facebook” one. The Facebook page looked okay at first glance, but then I noticed that most of the entries were from 2010. The last entry was from March 2011, and none of the comments and questions from visitors—which went up to 2013—had been answered.
I clicked the “Follow Us on Twitter” button. Same thing—all of the (already sparse) communication mysteriously stopped in 2011.
This was what I saw on Google Streetview:
For good measure, I left a detailed report with the Better Business Bureau in Massachusetts; I hope they’ll follow up on this case. Obviously the brand of solar panels did exist, so it couldn’t be a complete scam.
My theory is that the company, probably a small solar startup with just a few employees, went bankrupt in 2011 but still had a bunch of inventory left that they keep somewhere in a self-storage unit. While they aren’t actively advertising anymore, they keep up the website, and if someone calls them up and asks for a solar panel, they sell him one… but he has to come and pick it up himself.
So even if these guys aren’t total scoundrels and are selling actual solar kits, customers would be on their own from there. No warranties, no repair service, no refunds in case of malfunction. Oh, and did I mention that Paul tried to sell HB#1 a “slightly damaged” panel at a steep discount?
Paul did have the gall to call me up again, at which I politely declined to have any more to do with him or his company. I also informed him of the empty lot that was his supposed business address in a 48,000-head MA town. He grumbled something before I hung up on him.
The rest of the story is a happy one. My amazing Spidey sense brought me many hugs and kisses from HB#1 and bragging rights for the whole day. I am now known as "Shannaralock Holmes" in the neighborhood.
What’s the moral here?
First, do your due diligence before buying or believing anything you see online. If you look through the blog archives, you’ll see that I had a similar experience with a “literary agent” who prowls Twitter pitch contests for new clients and appeared more than fishy.
Second: Don’t EVER dismiss your gut feeling. If you have a queasy, uneasy kind of sensation in your stomach, listen to it, for God’s sake. And run the other way.