This is the card that came to columnist Craig Pittman touting a “FREE” water test. Credit: Craig Pittman
Florida, you may have heard, is a sunny place for shady people. We’ve had that reputation ever since the first grinning huckster sold an acre of swampland to an unsuspecting Yankee, promising it was “waterfront” property.
We’ve seen sooooo many examples of this. For instance, Charles Ponzi, the guy who invented the Ponzi Scheme in Boston, fled to Florida, where he promptly got involved in a scheme to sell lots that were literally underwater. He told buyers the lots were near Jacksonville, which they were if you call 65 miles away “near.”
As a Florida native, I’ve long been fascinated by stories about Ponzi and the other rogues who pulled off clever cons here. Maybe it’s because I hail from Escambia County, the only county with the word “scam” right in the name.
This is why I was so intrigued the other day when our letter carrier dropped off a stiff white card that carried the distinctive odor of: “Uh-oh, this ain’t right.”
“IMPORTANT WATER QUALITY NOTICE” it screamed. “The Water Plant will be in your area testing your water and collecting data FREE of charge.”
Nowhere did it explain what “The Water Plant” might be. It’s certainly not my local utility, which is run by the city of St. Petersburg.
The word “FREE” got my eyebrows up, too. You know anything in the “Free” State of Florida that claims to be free in all-caps lettering probably comes with a hefty price tag.
“Because of the quality of water changing in some areas (due to increased population, pollution, and chemical use), Water Plant recommends you have your water tested as soon as possible,” the card warned. “This is highly recommended even if your water is filtered/softened. Remember, this is a FREE service provided by The Water Plant.”
Then the card requested I fill out a few questions and mail it back. I flipped the card over to see where it would go. The address said, “Water Plant,” and a post office box in Palmetto.
Now I was really suspicious. The second FREE is what convinced me that this was some sort of ploy. To find out what was behind it, I turned to that famous investigative reporting tool known as Google.
A quick search turned up complaints to the Better Business Bureau about a company called Florida Filters LLC, the real source of the “Water Plant” card. The complaints said things like, “This company needs to be investigated and fined for high-pressure sales tactics, predatory lending, and exploitation of the elderly.”
It reminded me of a tip I’d gotten a few months ago from a Tallahassee attorney and author named Bill Bielecky. He wanted me to write about Florida companies that have convinced people they need special water-treatment devices when they really don’t. What they’re selling are water softeners, but they claim that they’re making the water healthier, cleaner, devoid of carcinogens.
Initially, I was reluctant to tackle this. I’m not “Craig On Your Side,” one of those reporters who go after sketchy car dealers and crooked contractors. I write about the environment — although there are plenty of sketchy developers involved in that.
But the Water Plant card that landed in my mailbox convinced me to take the plunge.
‘Expected soap savings’
The water-test racket hasn’t made a big splash anywhere, but it’s been around for at least a couple of decades. It’s been going on long enough that since 2003, the attorney general’s office has posted a lengthy warning about it.
Without naming any companies, the warning talks about “unscrupulous salespeople” who “prey upon concerned consumers by using scare tactics and fraudulent practices.”
The warning from Attorney General Ashley Moody mentions, without getting into specifics, that “fears about the purity of our water have increased dramatically in recent years,” thus setting the stage for this skullduggery.
Let me fill in some of the background here.
Florida recently ranked first in the nation for polluted lakes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has informed the state Department of Environmental Protection that its water pollution standards — to use a highly technical term — “suck.” Our water problems fueled the toxic algae blooms that wiped out most of the Indian River Lagoon’s seagrass, leading to the ongoing mass die-off of manatees.
The warning on Moody’s website says to avoid any offers of a free water test. Sorry, Florida Filters, aka “Water Plant”!
“Fraudulent sellers that advertise ‘free home water testing’ may only be interested in selling you their water treatment device, whether you need it, or not,” the A.G. said.
The next part echoes what Bielecky told me about the businesses that offer these tests. The tests are part of a sales pitch that’s as precisely choreographed as a Busby Berkeley synchronized swim routine.
“In performing the test, the salesperson may add tablets or droplets of chemicals to your tap water, explaining that the water will change color or that particles will form if the water is contaminated,” the A.G. warned. “When the water changes color before your eyes, the salesperson may warn you that the water is polluted and may cause cancer.”
Of course, the test doesn’t really show that. Those added tablets or droplets make sure that no water sample can pass the “free test” as clean, thus scaring the customers into forking over their dough.
One company the A.G. went after in court in 2010 had the surprisingly straightforward name of Florida Water Testing Inc. Among other things, salesmen for this Clearwater company claimed that the water treatment device it was selling would pay for itself through “expected soap savings.” Some people really fell for that.
“Expected Soap Savings,” by the way, is going to be the name of my new alt-rock band.
This company is all WET
I made such a deep dive into this subject that I started feeling like Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt.” Among other things, I paged through documents from some of the 50 or so lawsuits Bielecky filed in which he represented the victims of these sales sche — er, excuse me, pitches.
In one from Brevard County, he noted that the water treatment company was buying its devices for $800 each wholesale, and then selling them for nearly $7,000 apiece retail. Purchased from any other source, the device would cost less than $2,000, the attorney said.
By scaring the bejabbers out of customers, the salesmen get them to agree on the spot to buy a water softener without taking time to check prices or even get a second opinion.
One of Bielecky’s cases out of Pasco County included a fascinating deposition. This one involved a company called Water Evaluation Technology — W.E.T., get it? — and an Odessa-based company called Independent Savings Plan Company, or ISPC.
The Odessa company financed the customers’ purchases from W.E.T. In signing up for those products, people signed ISPC agreements that functioned like a credit card. According to various complaints, the ISPC agreement’s credit practices jacked the price up way beyond what the customers expected.
In some cases, customers discovered years later that ISPC had filed a lien on their homes that they had to pay off before they could sell the house.
ISPC turned out to be the owner of a company named LeverEdge that sold the water treatment systems to W.E.T. in the first place. They were benefiting from both ends of the transactions.
In the 2019 deposition, Bielecky showed one of those credit agreements to ISPC president Robert Schabes and asked him, “So where does this say this is a credit card account or agreement?”
“It doesn’t,” Schabes replied.
Then Bielecky reminded Schabes that ISPC used to work with a company called Emerald Coast Water Authority of Fort Walton Beach. Emerald Coast was sued by former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for defrauding its customers. Why, he asked, did the A.G. sue?
“To the best of my recollection,” Schabes replied, “the attorney general alleged that the merchant represented themselves as a water utility.” (Oops, more bad news for The Water Plant.)
Emerald Coast also used that very dramatic test to convince people that their water was unsafe. The test, Schabes said, actually showed the hardness of the water — nothing more. He defended the use of the test during the sales pitch, as long as the sales rep identified it accurately.
Bielecky pointed out that in connection with the Emerald Coast case, ISPC had signed an agreement with the attorney general. In the agreement, ISPC promised to train salespeople in how to deliver an honest pitch for their product.
Yet Schabes testified his company had merely passed along to WET a statement of what it must do, nothing more. There were, Bielecky pointed out, “no training materials, no demonstrations, no demonstrative training.”
“We do not train our merchants how to sell,” Schabes replied. “We are not in the selling practice.”
A welcome to the neighborhood
The Chamber of Commerce loves to point out that 900 or so new people move to Florida every day. But when these folks arrive from, say, New York or the Midwest, nobody tells them what they’ve gotten themselves into.
That’s why a lot of these water-treatment companies target those new homebuyers, who quickly find themselves in over their heads.
“We had just bought our house,” Vanessa Gilles, one of Bielecky’s clients, told me when I called her and her husband, Paola. “A letter came in the mail. It was from this company. They wanted to come by and talk for a bit and give us a gift card. It was like a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift. We didn’t know it was a water company.”
The salesman came by their Melbourne home wearing a shirt with the W.E.T. lettering on it. He quickly steered the conversation to water and persuaded them to pour him some liquid from their tap. Then he put his chemical into it. When it changed to something unappetizing, “he said, ‘See, this is what you’re drinking right now,” she recalled.
The salesman told them that installing the equipment he was selling would make their water free of toxins. Showers would be more comfortable. Dishes and clothes would be easier to clean. The system would pay for itself in no time!
The couple decided the equipment he was selling was a good investment. Of course, none of the promised benefits materialized. And in looking over the documentation, Paolo Gilles figured out they’d been bamboozled.
“I knew something was wrong because the interest rate was through the roof,” he told me. Meanwhile, it looked as if paying it off would take 15 years. “We tried to cancel it, but it was already too late.”
By suing W.E.T and ISPC, the couple got a settlement and the defendants wound up covering court costs, Bielecky told me. But I think about how many more folks have yet to figure out what’s going on. They probably feel like they’re sinking fast, about to go under.
I’ve tried several times this week to call Randall Nye, the proprietor of Florida Filters, aka the Water Plant. So far, he hasn’t responded. If I ever reach him, though, I know what I’ll say about his offer of a free water test: “Go soak your head.”
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