Regardless of costs towards HVAC firm, owners say they proceed to lose tens of millions in new contracts

Despite hundreds of calls and complaints — and millions of dollars in contracts disputed by homeowners — an Ontario heating and cooling equipment company continues to operate even with dozens of charges alleging violations of the province’s Consumer Protection Act, a CBC Marketplace investigation reveals.

The Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery is responsible for consumer protection, and states on its website that it handles complaints and enforces consumer protection laws.

Through a Freedom of Information request — a process that allows the public, including journalists, to access government records — Marketplace found that there have been more than 400 incidents, inquiries and complaints since January 2019 made to Consumer Protection Ontario, a program within the ministry , involving Ontario Green Savings.

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In those complaints, homeowners have described feeling “lied to,” “cheated” and “scammed.” And many shared detailed descriptions of how they were led to believe that Ontario Green Savings sales people were government employees offering savings and energy rebates that would show up on a utility bill.

But the Ontario government doesn’t offer such rebates through private HVAC companies.

Records obtained by Marketplace show that since 2019, homeowners have contacted the ministry to dispute more than $2.2 million in HVAC contracts with Ontario Green Savings.

Marketplace investigated this scam earlier this year, finding that instead of saving any money, residents say they find themselves trapped in contracts that can last ten years and cost thousands of dollars more than what the rental equipment is actually worth.

WATCH | Hidden cameras capture deceptive tactics used to sell overpriced HVAC contracts:

Hidden cameras catch HVAC scam in action

Exposing deceptive sales tactics used to suck people into unfair and overpriced HVAC contracts. And insiders reveal the new ways they get you to sign up for other home equipment too.

And it could get far worse for some.

When rental equipment is attached to a home, from a doorbell to a furnace, the associated company can place a lien against the title of that property as a form of security that the contract will be paid. And companies can place a lien on consumers’ homes immediately, even without a missed payment.

The team at Marketplace has heard from dozens of customers of Ontario Green Savings and its financial arm, many of whom say they were shocked to find a lien or Notice of Security Interest (NOSI) placed against the title of their homes without them knowing, which in Ontario is legal and can be done without a homeowner’s knowledge.

Ontario government wasn’t there to help, homeowners say

Abel Cheung from Orleans, Ont., is out more than $11,000 all because he signed up for a water filter that was supposed to save him money.

Cheung says he felt compelled to pay Ontario Green Savings more than $11,000 to have the lien placed on the title of his home removed. After installing a water filter in his basement the company placed a lien on his home the next day, which he only discovered when attempting to refinance his mortgage almost a year later.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how dare they put a lien against my home?'”

Keira Major from Hamilton, Ont., found herself in a similar situation. She paid the same HVAC company nearly $9,000 to buy out a HEPA filter and have her home’s lien removed. Major says she thought the company was associated with a government program.

Both turned to the ministry for help but say they got none.

Cheung filed his complaint in 2020, and major the following year. Cheung says the ministry did nothing, citing delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And Major received a letter stating that her complaint wouldn’t be investigated and referred her to the non-profit Pro Bono Ontario for legal advice.

“The department is there to just make the government look good, that we’re protecting our consumers when they’re really not,” said Major.

Government lays charges, but that doesn’t stop company

In 2019, the ministry laid dozens of charges against Ontario Green Savings and its director for violations of the Consumer Protection Act, but customers say it continues with the same deceptive sales tactics.

In an email statement, a lawyer representing Ontario Green Savings said “the company is currently investigating the allegations against it and will defend itself, where necessary, in a court of law.”

He also said the company has already “taken positive reformative action” by updating its policies and practices.

And in an email statement, the Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery said that it “monitors complaints and takes appropriate enforcement action in accordance with the Consumer Protection Act.”

It also said that because the Ontario Green Savings case is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further.

A possible fix

Jennifer Lillie, a civil litigation lawyer with a focus on consumer law, says the government could do more to protect homeowners.

“I do think there’s a strong case that these NOSIs should be harder to register, and much easier to remove. So these companies don’t have to go to court in order to register the NOSIs, but consumers are forced to go to court in order to have them removed,” said Lillie.

Lillie is currently representing five clients who are suing Ontario Green Savings in small claims court.

Civil litigation lawyer Jennifer Lillie says consumer protection legislation is being disregarded by some heating and cooling rental equipment companies. (Anu Singh/CBC)

She says homeowners will often have no idea there is a lien against their property until they go to sell their home or refinance their mortgages.

“At which point they can’t close the sale or the deal, and they can be ransomed for ridiculous sums of money,” Lillie said.

One potential way to protect homeowners, Lillie says, is for the government to create a process in which the land registry office notifies people when a lien has been registered on their property.

How can you protect your home?

In Ontario, consumers have the right to cancel any contract signed in their home within a 10-day cooling off period, and up to one year after if the business or salesperson made misleading statements about the contract.

While door-to-door sales are illegal in Ontario, Lillie warns that some companies have found loopholes. She says that Ontario Green Savings has had some homeowners unknowingly sign a piece of paper stating they were invited to the home, which was a condition put in place by the ministry to protect consumers.

Homeowners who want to check if there is a lien against their property can contact the local or provincial land registry. In Ontario, consumers can purchase what is called a Parcel Register. There they will find liens listed, or sometimes it will say “NO SEC INTERST,” with the “no” being short for “notice,” and not an absence of a security interest.

Lillie says those who spot an unexpected lien should seek legal advice, and for those who cannot afford a lawyer, Pro Bono Ontario is a good place to start.

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