Don’t Get 'Ghosted' By Lawn Scammers and Other Spring Lawn Care Tips

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If you’ve got a lawn and hate to mow, beware the lawn service “ghosts.”

“Ghosting” is an insiders’ term used by lawn care professionals to describe workers who promise to come out and treat a homeowner’s lawn but who don’t actually do any work.

Homeowners who’ve been ghosted will find service flags stuck in their lawn and a receipt in their mailbox, but not much else. Complaints about ghosting and the “splash and dash” -- which is like ghosting, except a little bit of fertilizer or herbicide is thrown around -- abound on online lawn care forums.

Some consumers are catching on. More than 3,500 complaints were filed last year in the Better Business Bureau network against various lawn care services, including gripes about shoddy workmanship, contract issues or problems with billing and collections.

“Either the grass [problem] is not ‘cured’ or the lawn is not any better than before they came … or the contract is never-ending, so they get stuck in that long-term contract,” said Steve Bernas, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, citing some common complaints.

David Feeney of Land O’ Lakes, Fla., caught a lawn ghoster shortly after installing a home security camera in 2010. On the video he posted to YouTube, which stops and starts when motion is detected, an employee from a lawn service can be seen driving up to Feeney’s house, placing a flag in the yard, knocking on the front door and leaving without doing any work, as he looks over his shoulder.

“The lawn really looked great, and I think that was probably why the guy decided not to do anything,” Feeney told the ABC News Fixer. “It was a Friday afternoon. Maybe he wanted to get done early and go have a beer.

“I was pretty shocked,” Feeney added.

After Feeney examined the video – and the $42 bill for the nonexistent service – he complained to the lawn service, which apologized, withdrew the bill and let him cancel his account.

Bernas of the BBB said it’s tough to prove “ghosting” without crouching behind the curtains or installing a security camera. “It’s a spray,” Bernas said. “How can you tell?”

Consumers need to check out the company and know exactly what they’re signing up for – and not agree to a plan over the phone without first seeing a contract, Bernas said.

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Here are some tips for keeping your lawn and your wallet green:

Be specific. Do you just need mowing services, or are you looking for fertilizing, weeding, aerating – the whole gamut?

Find out what products and brands will be used and research the safety of any pesticides or herbicides. Are there any precautions for children, pregnant women, the elderly or pets? Ask about using less harmful alternatives.

Request a yard inspection and estimate before agreeing to anything. Be wary of anyone who will quote a price for elaborate lawn work without seeing your yard first.

Check reviews online. Get recommendations from family and friends. Talk with neighbors who have nice lawns.

Get written estimates from at least three companies.

Understand the contract. Are you paying for each mow or by the week? Does it include special services like edging or pest control? Who takes away the clippings? And what happens if it rains -- do they skip that week?

This is a big one: Does the contract automatically renew from season to season and year to year? If you aren’t happy, what are your cancellation rights? Does the company offer a guarantee?

Make sure the company meets local licensing requirements and has liability insurance for its workers. Ask whether they use subcontractors.

- The ABC News Fixer

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