FORT MYERS, Fla. - Ben Puglise dealt with a lot of bad guys in his 34 years as a Chicago cop. But he says what happened to him in January left him feeling dumb.
"I hope other people can learn from this thing," Puglise said.
Ben and his wife bought a new air conditioner three years ago. But when he received a cold call from Service Star Enterprise Inc., a Fort Myers based company, Puglise took them up on their offer to check his system.
"They hook you in and they say we have technicians in the area and we'll give you a free check," Puglise recalls.
That check turned into a $2,200 bill.
"They said I had no warranty," Puglise said.
It wasn't until after the techs had finished their work that Puglise called the manufacturer. And he found out it was under warranty. Yet he was still charged full price.
"I called and asked them why did I have to pay for the part if you got the part free?"
Puglise says he made several calls to the company that were never returned. After several tries, he reached out to WINK News Call For Action.
We put him in touch with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and he was finally able to get an $850 refund.
Service Star claims the distributor was in error.
During the course of our investigation we found more than two dozen similar complaints against Service Star. Employees from the company would make a cold call and offer a check up for less than 60 dollars. Then things went downhill.
Linda Kinkeade also reached out to Call For Action on behalf of Agnes, the woman she cars for.
"Ended up charging her $3,200. Just didn't add up right," Kinkeade said.
Service Star claims the unit at Agnes's house was seven years old and that it was "freezing up and causing water to stand in the ductwork and saturate the insulation."
When in fact, the unit was practically brand new. Quality Control Air out of Port Charlotte confirmed that their techs installed the unit in August of 2012, just six months before Service Star showed up.
The Service Star techs also had Agnes sign a handwritten addendum that says the customer makes all financial decisions and agrees to charges.
As we went through complaint after complaint, we noticed the Service Star techs had other select customers sign similar notes. That shocked Frank in Port Charlotte, because he says his dad suffers from partial dementia.
"It's written right here we make all our decisions. Here's your signature and your initial. Well actually, he's not making all his decisions. I'm doing a lot of decisions with power of attorney," Frank said.
We're not the only ones who have received complaints about Service Star. We've uncovered complaints to the Attorney General's Office, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Seniors Vs. Crime along with local law enforcement agencies.
The Better Business Bureau ranks Service Star with an "F" rating and a special alert that says the BBB has received a pattern of complaints. Service Star says that's because they don't pay the membership fee.
The Charlotte County Construction Industry Licensing Board revoked the company's ability to perform new construction in the county.
Though the company has gone by different but similar sounding names, including Service Star Inc, and Service Star Enterprises Inc, the common theme is Salvatore Tavolacci. He has been associated with the companies in some way, shape or form since 2010.
State records show Tavolacci has served as the President and CEO.
Tavolacci is a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty in 2000 for securities fraud. Investigators say he posed as a stock broker, make cold calls to clients and sold bogus stocks. He was released from Federal Prison in 2004.
We confronted him after Service Star Enterprises was reprimanded by the Charlotte County construction board.
"We have 24,500 customers that are happy. We have a 99.6% customer satisfaction rate," Tavolacci said while his employees were jumping in front of our camera to block our shot.
As he was walking away we asked him about the customers who have complained about his company, including the former clients who complained in front of the construction board.
"If they would have contacted the company to make resolutions we would have done so. They were coerced by the people in the courtroom to do otherwise."
A couple hours before the story aired, Service Star brought WINK News Call For Action a letter from Salvatore Tavolacci, some of which we included in the story. He insists these complaints are just a fraction of his business and says the other 99.9% of his customers are happy. He says that puts him in the same category as Disney Land and Ritz-Carlton.