Dear Consumer Ed:

I had an issue with our septic service and got a quote from a company who said they could fix the problem for $195. After coming out to my property, they told me that additional work would be necessary, which would cost between $2,000-$3,000.  I told them I could not afford that, but they warned me that if I neglected to have the additional work done, I would end up having severe sewage issues.  I don't think it's fair that they gave me a low estimate and then tried to force me to pay ten times that much.  What can I do?

Consumer Ed Says:

It sounds like the septic company's $195 offer was misleading.  Under State and federal law, it's considered deceptive and misleading to advertise goods or services if you don't intend to sell them as advertised. One form of this is "bait advertising," which is an alluring but insincere offer to sell a product or service which the marketer doesn't actually intend or want to sell as advertised.  Its purpose is to switch consumers from buying the advertised merchandise or service in order to either sell something else, or sell the same thing but at a higher price.  

If the quote provided to you wasn't a bona fide or genuine offer, it could be considered deceptive and misleading.  However, establishing that an offer or quote was not made in good faith can be tricky.  If the company disclosed that the actual price of septic services may be more than the quoted price based on the actual condition of your septic system after an inspection, the lower priced quote-though possibly what lured you to schedule an inspection-may still be legitimate.  An important point:  any difference in the price of merchandise or services from the prices in an advertisement should be fully disclosed before the purchaser becomes financially obligated for the goods or services.

If you believe the septic company you dealt with misled you by offering a flat rate and then refusing to stand by it, see below for agencies you can contact to voice your concerns.  Before hiring a septic company, the best thing you can do is ask questions and seek out information, so you can make informed decisions.  Below are a few tips to consider if you think you may need your septic system serviced.

Ask for referrals: Check with friends, family members, coworkers and neighbors for company referrals. Your own personal network may be your best source of information.  Ask if they were happy with the work performed on their septic system, what work was done, the price paid and if they would hire the same company again.

Ask for quotes:  Call different septic tank service and pumping companies, get quotes (at least 3), and compare them.  Consider their prices, additional fees, services covered under the quote and whether the company guarantees their work.  If possible, get the quote (and the terms of the quote) in writing.

Ask questions:  When you receive a quote, ask questions before scheduling a visit.  For example:  Will I be charged anything for you to just inspect my system? What exact services does the quote cover?  What is the maximum amount of waste that will be pumped under the quote?  Does your quote include all fees? What additional fees may I be charged?  What guarantee do you provide on your services?

Be on the lookout for additional fees: A septic service company may add additional fees to their service price.  Make sure you know what other fees are possible so that you're not caught unaware once the company is at your home.  Ask what additional fees are typical or what the company normally finds in these circumstances that may involve additional fees.  Septic companies often name their fees differently but a few common fees include:  extra sludge fee; over the line fee (when your septic tank is overflowing and they charge extra for pumping because you've exceeded the tank's capacity); tank opening fee or entry fee; digging fee; confined space fee; additional hose fee; trip charge; service or estimate charge; and diagnostic fee.  Again, any additional fees, as well as a clear explanation for them, should be disclosed to you before you sign any agreement and/or become financially obligated for the service.

Verify the company's certification: Septic tank contractors must be certified by the Department of Public Health (DPH) to operate in Georgia, so you should check that the company you are considering is properly certified.  Visit the DPH Wastewater Management webpage at http://dph.georgia.gov/wastewater-management and check the certified companies listed under the "Homeowner Resources" section.  For the most current information, you can also contact the State Environmental Health Office at (404) 657-6534. 

Educate yourself: A deceptive company may try to take advantage of your lack of knowledge, so it's a good idea to know the basics about septic systems generally and about your system specifically (for example, where your tank and absorption field are located and your septic tank's capacity). The DPH offers an informational video titled Understanding Your Septic System as well as A Homeowner's Guide to On-Site Sewage Management Systems to educate homeowners on septic systems. 

Take action: If a septic company has been deceptive or used misleading practices, including bait and switch tactics or generally deceptive advertising, you should try to resolve the dispute with the company first.  However, if you are unable to resolve the problem with them directly, you have several options:

 

  • Take your business elsewhere. If you believe a company is being deceptive or has misled you, the best thing you can do for yourself and for other consumers is to not do business with them.
  • If appropriate, file a complaint with your county environmental health office. County offices handle local septic system inspections and permitting. If you believe the company you dealt with violated DPH rules and regulations (for example, punching holes in the septic tank, not properly disposing of waste, installing or changing a septic system without a permit, operating without being certified, etc.), you can issue a complaint with your county environmental health office.
  • File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Visit https://www.bbb.org/consumer-complaints/file-a-complaint/get-started and follow the instructions provided.
  • File a complaint with the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection. Visit our website at http://consumer.georgia.gov/consumer-services/filing-a-complaint and follow the instructions provided. 

 


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