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Cancer. Skin disease. Alzheimer's. These are just a few of the illnesses some door-to-door salesmen claim can happen when people drink tap water. It's no surprise what they're selling: expensive in-home water filtration systems.
Pittsburgh TV's Team 4 investigative reporter Jim Parsons recently exposed less-than-ethical water filter sales tactics in a hidden-camera investigation. Below is the transcript of that report, which first aired May 13 on WTAE Action News.
It was just two years ago that an Ohio-based company called Hague Quality Water opened an office in western Pennsylvania. Already, aggressive sales tactics are drawing consumer complaints.
Some of those complaints came to Team 4. We responded with hidden cameras.
Mark Levenson: "This water right here is nasty."
This water filter salesman is making one outrageous claim after another to sell his product.
Levenson: "You have as much chemical in your water as swimming pools, so you have to ask yourself, 'What does that do?' Rectal, colon, bladder cancer."
He works for Hague Quality Water of Pittsburgh, the same company that sent a salesman to John and Moena McCoy's house in Homewood.
The McCoys have always boiled their tap water. Yet, a Hague salesman convinced them their water wasn't safe.
John McCoy: "He said, 'I'm going to add something to it,' because he said most water around here is no good."
The McCoys' only source of income is Social Security.
Parsons: "Did you understand when that man walked out of here, you had purchased a product that was going to cost you, when all was said and done, about $5,000?"
McCoy: "No, sir-ee."
Dr. Monique Higginbotham, McCoys' granddaughter: "I think what happened to my grandparents is just disgusting."
Higginbotham is a general practictioner at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She says the McCoys are ill and were incapable of understanding the Hague water filter sales pitch.
Higginbotham: "It hurts me that they've been victmized like this. I don't want to see this happen to other people as well."
It already has happened, according to a lawsuit.
Hague's financing company, Wells Fargo, has sued Hague, accusing it of making misrepresentations to three elderly customers, including 88-year old Odetta Campbell.
The salesman who visited Campbell is the same guy who showed up when Jan Petronek set up an appointment at Team 4's request.
Petronek's husband, Steve, is WTAE's art director, but Parsons posed as him when the Hague salesman came calling.
Hidden cameras caught all of Levenson's false claims.
Levenson: "We designed this filtration system about 40-some odd years ago for NASA, and these systems are actually in the Space Shuttle today."
In the Space Shuttle? Team 4 checked with NASA, and it has no record of ever having done business with Hague.
Next, Levenson's boasting turned to the private sector.
Levenson: "Take Red Lobster. Every Red Lobster that's franchise-owned in the country deals with Hague, with our company."
Only one problem with that claim: Red Lobster doesn't have any franchise-owned restaurants. They're all owned by the company, and the company says it has never done business with Hague.
Levenson wasn't through.
Levenson: "Coke and Pepsi. Every Coca-Cola plant, every Pepsi-Cola plant in the world deals exclusively with us ... First and foremost, they sell bottled water. Aquafina is Pepsi, Dasani is Coca-Cola. That's simply through our filtration systems. So that's our water, actually."
No, it's not. We checked. Coke and Pepsi both told Team 4 the same thing: They've never heard of Hague.
When Levenson was through bragging, he moved straight to scare tactics.
Levenson: "I'm going to visibly show you in 15 minutes what's in your water that's not water."
Using an instant test kit, he warned Jan Petronek that her water had problems like hardness.
Levenson: "You know, it clogs your arteries. It's hardness."
Clogged arteries from hard water?
Levenson's tests produced another not-so-shocking discovery: Jan Petronek had chlorine in her water.
Levenson: "That's why, today, people have skin disease, people get dry skin. More and more people today have Alzheimer's disease."
Alzheimer's from chlorine in the water?
In the midst of all these warnings, Levenson throws in a disclaimer.
Levenson: "I'm not going to say it will kill you, because it won't. Obviously it hasn't killed anybody today on this day … yet."
But then he goes right back to the scare tactics.
Levenson: "I'm going to test for lead."
After putting some mystery drops in the water, he claimed the cloudiness proved the presence of lead.
Levenson: "This is what you feel on your skin — the lead, the chlorine. Eventually that catches up to you."
There wasn't any lead in Jan Petronek's water. How do we know? Team 4 had it tested on the same day — not with some in-home kit, but by a state-approved laboratory.
We took the findings to the Allegheny County health department.
Parsons: "Is the water safe to drink in that house, based on those results?"
Barbara Grosch, ACHD: "Yes."
Parsons: "It's healthy water?"
Parsons: "You're not going to get sick from drinking this water?"
Finally, Levenson tells us that his company's water filter will save us from all those nasty pollutants — all for only $4,200. But the special price was only good if we signed a contract right then and there.
Levenson: "So what do you really have to lose?"
Jan Petronek tells Levenson and his partner that she wants some time to think about it, but they keep trying to make the sale.
Levenson: "You have everything to gain by doing business with us now."
Groesch: "I recommend not to be taken in by gimmicks."
Groesch says homeowners with a public water supply don't need to filter their water.
Groesch: "For health effects, no one needs it. For aesthetic reasons, people may want to install some type of water treatment."
This is not the first community to have a problem with Hague sales tactics. Last year in Kansas City, a Hague dealer agreed to pay fines of $69,000 because of high-pressure sales tactics.
The McCoys took Hague to court and were awarded $4,600. Hague is appealing the decision.