ATLANTA, GA-- One cold February day four years ago, Simon Weinstein's furnace stopped working. He made a decision he regrets to this day: He called a company called Mechanics Heating and Air.
"It's the middle of February and I don't have heat. So I really need heat," said Weinstein, who said he called the company based on an advertised low-cost service call. "I gave them a check for five hundred dollars."
Weinstein subsequently disputed the bill, took it to an arbitrator and lost. Yet his problems with Mechanics continued in ways he never expected.
First, a little about Mechanics. The Better Business Bureau opened a file on the company six years ago, fielding complaints about overcharging, bait-and-switch and other issues. Mechanics Heating and Air currently carries a rating of F, according to the Atlanta area BBB CEO Fred Elsberry.
"They've had an F before. And they got it up to a D rating," said Elsberry. "And when we saw their practice of continuing to threaten customers, we issued the alert on the company in the last two to three weeks. And that drove the F rating that they have today."
Yes, he said "threaten customers."
The company controls several websites. One of them is menacingly devoted to what it calls "the consequences" of actions taken by customers who dare to complain about Mechanics Heating and Air's service.
"We are always keeping an eye out for other examples of slanderous and vindictive 'customers' to make 'examples' out of," says one of the sites controlled by the company.
Simon Weinstein knows them firsthand.
"They put a website up in my name!" said Weinstein.
Call up simonweinstein.com, and you get a site devoted to a lengthy treatise on Mechanics Heating and Air's unflattering view of Simon Weinstein -- complete with links to the public tax records of his home in Buckhead, and his 2005 divorce.
"They found a lot of personal information on me that's a matter of public record and they just put it all on the web," Weinstein said. "I consider it an invasion of privacy."
But Weinstein added that he's never had any encounters with people who have actually stumbled onto the material on the internet.
Weinstein isn't the only target. There are more than a dozen domains listed that Mechanics Heating and Air claims to have bought and used to clobber former customers who griped about the company.
"Here is our growing list of abusive customers who made the wrong choice (and paid the price!)," says the headline above the list of domains.
"This is a company that's using intimidation," said Elsberry. "As opposed to, say, simply looking at the best practices in the industry and maybe following them."
On its various websites, Mechanics Heating and Air claims to have thousands of satisfied customers. Out in the world, the company stays well hidden within a locked office in a building on Canton Highway -- behind an apparently permanent sign that says "back in fifteen minutes."
When we contacted Mechanics Heating and Air, a man named Monty White Jr. responded. He declined an email request for an interview -- which he apparently viewed as "a threat," and promised to "start an investigation into (11 Alive's) practices."
"If somebody Googles me, they see this" content created by Mechanics, said Weinstein. "So they wanted to give me a hard time, and they found a way to give me a hard time."
"The question in my mind is, gosh, what can I do? And I'm not sure there's much you can do."
He's right, according to Alan Begner, a high profile Atlanta first amendment lawyer. The sites may be opinionated and obnoxious, but he says if they aren't false or libelous, Mechanics Heating and Air can probably use the internet to say whatever they want about former customers -- or reporters, or whomever they choose.
The Better Business Bureau and the Georgia Office of Consumer Protection have ongoing investigations into the business. But they deal with ripoff allegations, and not the company's unusual online approach to customer relations.