Garden Variety Scams - BBB - Scam Alert - May 2007

By Mayo McDonough

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According to Statistics Canada, gardening is the number one leisure activity in the country. An estimated 80 per cent of Canadians take part in some form of gardening activity and spend an estimated $16 billion annually.

On the West Coast, sufficient rainfall, mild weather and sunny summers make gardening the perfect pastime for retirees and homeowners of all ages. Gardening and landscaping service and product providers flourish during the spring and summer months, and many of these businesses' entire livelihood depends on this "prime time" gardening season.

Unfortunately, this is also the prime time for scam artists to take advantage of unsuspecting victims. Typically, at this time of year, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) sees an increase in gardening- and landscaping-related scams, often targeted towards the senior community.

Many scams fall into the garden variety door-to-door scam, whereby the fraudster shows up on a person's doorstep, offering to do some type of yard work, usually for an upfront fee to be paid in cash. Innocent homeowners eager to get their lawns cut, gardens weeded or trees pruned are relieved to have a friendly face offering help. Then the scam artist either takes off without completing the work, or is so unskilled and unqualified that the work is completely unsatisfactory. In some circumstances, the BBB has heard of fraudsters using yard work to scope out the property for future thefts.

The BBB has also received a number of complaints of poor business practices in the industry. One example is of a local yard maintenance company hired during the winter to provide yard care in the spring. Months later, the company returns (when no one is around to confirm the work has been completed), claims to have performed some service, and leaves an invoice for services rendered in the mailbox. When consumers try to contact the company or cancel future service, no one is available to address the matter. Thus, the cycle continues.

In another case, a consumer spent thousands of dollars hiring a landscape architect to rip apart his yard and re-landscape it. When the project was completed, the consumer paid the landscaper. Six months later, every living thing on the property was dead. Failure to communicate effectively resulted in the consumer not understanding their responsibility in maintaining the yard (i.e. fertilizing, weeding and watering).

And just as it is with the home building industry, the demand on businesses that provide gardening and landscaping services is ever expanding. Now, more than ever, consumers contact the BBB frustrated with the length of time their gardening projects are taking contractors to complete, and with the amount of down payments expected.

So, what can consumers do to protect themselves from becoming victims of garden/landscaping scams or bad business practice? Consider these tips when planning your next gardening project:

- Identify what projects you want to work on this season. What can you do yourself? How much can you afford to spend? Make a list, and stick to it.

- Never give a stranger money to perform work on your property. Before hiring anybody to help you, check him or her out. Ask for references and find out if the person has WCB insurance or if your home insurance will cover any potential accidents. Contact the BBB to check out a company's Reliability Report.

- Depending on the size and budget of the project, get three estimates from three different companies as to the supplies required, labour costs and length of time the project will take to complete.

- Get the details in a signed contract. This protects both you and the company from issues arising due to miscommunication.

- Stay on top of your gardening project once started. Try to be around while the gardeners are working on your property, and check in with them to see how things are going.

- Understand what gardening activities you are responsible for in order to keep your yard alive and well!

For more information on how to avoid becoming a victim of scams and how to be a smart consumer, visit the BBB website at

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