MILWAUKEE — Tammy Hansen was relieved to find Snow Angels, LLC during her search for snow removal.
A neighbor who cleared her sidewalks other years wasn't available and her rheumatoid arthritis prevents her from shoveling the snow that piles up outside her Milwaukee home.
She paid $450 to cover services all winter.
The morning after a storm blanketed Milwaukee with nearly six inches of snow Jan. 15, Hansen said she woke up to find her property had not been cleared.
Her calls phone calls to the company went straight to voicemail.
Hours later, Snow Angels sent an email informing customers the business collapsed.
The down payment Hansen made was never refunded.
"I have to believe there are more good people in this world than bad, but the bad ones really kick you in the gut when they get the chance," Hansen said. "That makes me really sad and makes me really doubt my ability to trust people at face value."
Now, a consumer protection group alleges a former congressional candidate from Cottage Grove took thousands of dollars in pre-payments for services his business never fulfilled.
According to a recent Better Business Bureau press release, Snow Angels owner Matthew Erickson accepted payments of up to $650 for the season.
At least 20 people throughout Wisconsin, illinois and Minnesota lodged complaints against the company with BBB this year.
Like Hanson, one complainant reported receiving the following email from Snow Angels following the Jan. 15 storm:
"We regret to inform you that we will not be able to service your route tonight. Our company will be folding. We were delaying this decision until after this storm in order to provide service today. However, due to unforeseen logistical difficulties, we will not be able to clear this snowfall or any in the future."
BBB now reports at least $16,000 in missing reimbursements, a dollar amount that could grow as the group processes more complaints.
Their attempts to contact Erickson have so far been unsuccessful.
All listed telephone numbers for the company, the release states, have been disconnected.
The company lists three addresses, all UPS stores in Minnesota, Milwaukee and Chicago. Mail sent the Milwaukee address, the release states, were labeled "return to sender."
Erickson did not immediately respond to RiverTown requests for comment.
Run for Congress
Erickson stirred controversy during his unsuccessful 2016 bid for Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District as a Republican candidate.
He has been noted in news coverage for criticizing fellow Republican candidates, fiery comments about issues like immigration and counter-terrorism, and likening himself to Clint Eastwood's character in "Gran Torino" on a now-defunct campaign website.
Erickson gained less than seven percent of the vote in the primaries and did not move forward to the general election.
A RiverTown report from around election time listed Erickson as a sales consultant and Snow Angels owner.
The Snow Angels website appears to have been shut down, but a Twitter page linked to the company's online BBB profile bills its services as protection for "the elderly and vulnerable from slips, falls and fraud."
Missing payments, services
Online research led Anita Ellsberry to Snow Angels to clear snow from her 83-year-old mother's home in Milwaukee.
Ellsberry lives in Florida, but makes the snow removal arrangements each year.
She said she was initially impressed by her interactions with the company after they modified her seasonal contract to be more specific.
The first big snowfall on her mother's house, however, went unshoveled.
Like nearly two-dozen other people who filed BBB complaints, Ellsberry learned via email that Snow Angels was no longer operating.
She has not heard back from the company since.
Now, Ellsberry said she's evaluating other snow removal options.
"It's frustrating; You're thousands of miles away, I can't jump in the car and go over and do it," she said. "Thank goodness I have wonderful support systems in the area."
Ellsberry use to a credit card to make her down payment and said she will likely get her money back.
Other customers weren't as lucky.
Hansen said she paid with a debit card and doubts she'll see any repayments.
She managed to make other snow removal arrangements, but not without paying $400 to another vendor.
Both Anita and Hansen used HomeAdvisor during their search for a shoveler.
An agent with the home services search platform said Snow Angels had been terminated from its services.
HomeAdvisor terms and conditions say the company may provide "limited assistance" resolving disputes between customers and contractors, but they "cannot guarantee" work by service professionals they list.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection received six complaints about Snow Angels LLC in 2018, spokesman Bill Cosh said.
"These complaints are currently under review," he said in an email.
Hansen said she hasn't looked into routes to regain her money, but she hopes to see Erickson and his company face legal repercussions.
A former government witness with the VA Inspector General's office, Hansen said she has a "heightened trigger switch" for abusive financial practices.
"What (Erickson) did was absolutely fraudulent," she said. "I believe he deserves to be prosecuted and I deserve to get my money back. He deserves to go to jail."
Erickson has no criminal charges related to this case in Minnesota or Wisconsin as of print time Feb. 26.
BBB: Avoid Scams
The BBB offers the following tips when hiring a snow removal company:
•Get several estimates: Prices can vary widely and are usually based on the amount of work, which takes into account the layout of the property and size of the area to be cleared. Remember, the least expensive service is not always the best service.
•Split the payments: Find out how the company expects payment. Most snow plow companies request pre-pay services in full, upfront. Contracts take two forms: pay per plowing or pay per season. If consumers choose a pay per season contract in a light snow season, the contractor is not obligated to refund any money. If consumers are expected to pay all fees upfront — consider it a red flag. Most contractors will split fees into two or three payments — one at the beginning, middle and end of the season. Never pay in cash.
•Ask the contractor about additional charges: Besides the quoted price, there are sometimes additional charges during large storms. Find out how the company calculates the size of the snowfall. Some contractors may offer a fixed price for an entire season, regardless of the amount of snow.
•Make sure you know what services you're getting: Find out exactly what's included and ask questions. Are the walks and steps included? What about the cost of sand and salt? Will the company clear only after a storm, or during the snowfall as well? If the contractor has to come back, is there an additional charge? Ask if the company will remove heavy snow loads from a building rooftop. Is there an additional charge?
•Ask for references and check them out: Check with BBB for a free Business Review on the contractor you're planning to use at bbb.org and find companies in their Accredited Business directory. Do not settle on an agreement over the telephone. The contractor should provide you with a written agreement. A representative should come out to examine your property and make notes about the service requested and potential obstacles.
•Discuss liability: Before you sign the agreement, ask who will be responsible for damages, such as cracked driveways or broken gates. Ask if the contractor is insured or bonded. Also, find out how you can terminate the agreement if necessary.
•Get contact information: Make sure to get the contact information for the company in the case of a snow emergency, and know the policies about who to reach, standard contact phone numbers and any special number for urgent needs. Be sure you get the company's street address and check out the address by doing a reverse check as well as a Google search.