It was well before dawn when I started searching with my laptop on the dinette table. The day before, in the midst of Alumafiesta, the Airstream’s refrigerator had packed up, leaving behind only a trace of greenish-yellow coolant spilled at its base–a sure sign of complete failure. I was in a bind with no refrigeration while running an event with over 100 Airstreams.
There was no hope of fixing the refrigerator during the event, so I moved all my food to a drink cooler located in the main event area, and my frozen stuff went into Brett’s freezer for the duration. But when I woke up early the next morning I resolved that I would buy a replacement cooling unit and learn how to swap it out myself.
The cooling unit is the guts of your refrigerator; basically a sealed unit that includes all the machinery that actually produces coldness. It’s everything except the refrigerator box and the control panel. After a few minutes of searching, I found several companies that specialized in making or rebuilding cooling units, and one company in particular stood out for its aggressive pricing, by the name of RV Fridge House.
I picked up the phone and called them, and was impressed that on a Saturday morning someone answered, took my order and answered basic questions. Not only that, but for an additional $25 they’d extend their two year warranty to six years.
I bit. When I said I was ready to order, I was switched over to another person who said they didn’t take credit cards, but would do an “e-check.” An e-check is somewhat like a debit card payment, except that you provide your checking account and bank routing number, and authorize the seller to debit your account for that amount, for one time only. This made me pause, and it should have been a warning sign. Looking back on it now, I should have hung up and thought some more, but I was eager to get this task done so I could move forward with the business of running an event.
The question I should have asked myself was, “Why doesn’t this vendor take credit cards?” In this era, anyone can accept a credit card thanks to services like PayPal, Square, and others. You don’t need to go through the background checks and hoops that were the norm just a decade ago. The fees that a merchant pays to accept an e-check aren’t much different from the fees of credit card processing, so the excuse that “credit card fees are too high” doesn’t hold up.
There’s a very good reason why some vendors don’t take credit cards: they’ve had a terrible history in dealing with customer complaints, and they’ve been effectively blacklisted by the credit card processors.
What happened next followed a pattern that I’ve seen before in businesses that have long experience at scamming customers. I received no receipt, no tracking information, and no followup except for a line on my checking account statement indicating that NuCold Refrigeration Inc debited my account for $524.00. A week later I called to find out what happened to my cooling unit, and got a very personable and cooperative man who said it had been shipped via FedEx, and that he’d look into it and call back.
You can guess what happened after that if you read up on this business. Their local news station KATV has done two stories on RV Fridge House, one back in October 2, 2013, and a followup on December 14, 2015. There is a Better Business Bureau alert out about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding advising of “a pattern of complaints concerning non-delivery of products that ordered and paid for. Consumers typically complain that they order and pay for cooling units from the business, but that the units are never delivered or money returned, and that the business will not answer or return phone calls.”
How many complaints? The BBB currently lists over 100.
A competitor notes that they have operated under the names RV Cool Fridge, Freez-It, and RVIceBox, and warns in no uncertain terms that they aren’t the only ones in the industry who follow the pattern of promising cooling units and not delivering.
I’ve seen businesses like this before. The lead operator, who I think I was dealing with on the phone, is usually smooth and convincing. At first I bought his line about FedEx “losing” my cooling unit, and even felt sympathetic as he explained how much the loss of that newly-rebuilt unit would hurt his business. He politely and calmly promised that as soon as they could rebuild another one, they’d ship it to me, even going to the extent of “checking records” to see how many rebuildable units they had in stock while I waited on the phone.
When I called back on other days to follow up—since the promised callbacks never happened—he mentioned how it was an inconvenient time to talk because (a) they were on their way to a parent-teacher conference; (b) he was driving to another location and was 100 miles away from the office; (c) the staff were busy unloading a truck and so he couldn’t get an answer right away. It’s much more convincing to go into unnecessary details when you’re weaving a story.
And he was still polite, thanking me for my patience, and saying “Have a blessed day.” (Using religious or patriotic phrases is also a good way to build trust with some folks, although personally I always get a little more suspicious when people do that in a customer service situation.)
When I had to leave for Alumaflamingo in mid-February, I thought I had this worked out. I was still drinking RV Fridge House’s Kool-Aid. I was told that my second cooling unit was ready for shipment. (The one FedEx “lost” never materialized for some reason, but I did hear about how “this has never happened before,” and “they don’t even have it in their system, so they are going to have to do a search,” and “I don’t know how it happened—it’s a big box.”)
Since I wasn’t going to be home for a week, we arranged that the “second” cooling unit would be shipped on February 27, so that it would be here waiting for me when I got back. Of course it wasn’t, and after two weeks, four more follow-up calls, and four more failures to call back, RV Fridge House aka NuCold Refrigeration Inc simply stopped answering my calls. (Caller ID is very handy for people who want to duck a customer.)
And there’s the pattern. Essentially, people like this are running out the clock. They’re dragging it out until you give up, and then they’ve got your money. You can ask for a refund, but it’s hard to do that when they don’t answer your calls anymore.
Many of the reports I read online (after I realized what was happening) revealed that many people think an e-check is money forever lost; that it can’t be reversed. They think that their only recourse is to complain to the BBB, the Arkansas Attorney General, or the business itself. When nothing happens, they bitterly give up and figure that money is gone.
The good news is that you actually can reverse an e-check, just like the way you can dispute a credit card charge. E-checks are governed by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act of 1978 and the rules are documented in “Regulation E” (which is a dense pile of financial babble that I actually took the time to download and read), and in that regulation is the provision that e-checks can be disputed and reversed if you notify your bank within 60 days of the bank statement that shows the transaction.
Best of all, it’s basically “no questions asked.” You don’t have to prove anything, just affirm that you are disputing the charge. It’s fraud if it was a transfer “initiated by a person other than the consumer without authority to initiate the transfer and from which the consumer receives no benefit.” I’m no lawyer, but to me, if you didn’t get your promised refrigerator cooling unit from someone like NuCold Refrigeration Inc, and you didn’t get your money back, that meets the definition of “without authority” and receiving “no benefit.” They were authorized to make the transfer on the contingency that they’d deliver a product in a timely fashion. E-checks are not a license to steal.
The bank is required to investigate within 10 business days (essentially to confirm that the charge occurred), and return your money within 1 day of completing their investigation. The vendor cannot charge your account again without your express approval.
So you’re not getting away with my $524, RV Fridge House.
And I hope more people complain about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding aka Freez-It aka RV Cool Fridge aka RVIceBox to the Better Business Bureau in Arkansas, the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, and in online forums. Bringing bad actors into the spotlight of public opinion is the best way we have to identify them and warn other people.
Of course, after all this I still needed a replacement cooling unit for my Dometic refrigerator. This time I searched more carefully, and checked references online, and looked for the little indicators that suggest a shady operator. For example, the legitimate operations don’t hide their names and addresses—they’re proud to say who they are and help their customers. If you have a problem or a warranty claim, you’re going to want to know how to reach the people in charge, and you can’t do that effectively if you only have a URL and a toll-free phone number. I was surprised to find that several companies in this industry obscure their contact information. I won’t buy from them.
I also decided I would only work with a company that accepted credit card payments. I’m not afraid of e-checks now, but I prefer the consumer protections that come with credit cards.
After ordering, I expected (and got) a receipt within 24 hours, documenting my purchase and projected delivery date. The receipt also showed the names of the people I’m working with and their email addresses.
This week I expect to get a tracking number for the shipment. If I don’t, I’ll follow up and demand one—and if I don’t get it promptly I’ll start a dispute via my credit card issuer so that I won’t be liable for the bill until the company resolves the problem.
The new cooling unit is going to cost me about $100 more than the one I was promised from Fridge House. But this time, I think I’ll actually get it. Once I do, and I’m satisfied, I’ll post the name of the company I bought it from here.
Postscript: A few days after initiating a chargeback, I received a message from Jerry Collins of Fridge House, saying that my cooling unit was on the way, complete with a FedEx tracking number. Too late. Since I didn’t trust the vendor, already had a chargeback in process, and had already ordered a cooling unit from another vendor, I simply refused the shipment when it arrived.