Dear Watchdog:

Can you recommend a good washing machine repairman? Our machine is on the fritz, and at our age we don’t want to buy a new one unless it’s absolutely necessary. — E.B.

Dear E.B.:

Let me tell you the repairman I wouldn’t hire. His name is Michael Stoneham, and in the past I’ve asked this question: Is Michael Stoneham the worst repairman in Texas?

I’ve followed him for six years, first hearing how he took a $175 deposit from a Fort Worth man and disappeared. More recently, I told the story of the Dallas man who figured out Stoneham was overcharging him and pulled the plug. Stoneham retaliated with threatening text messages to both the man and his wife.

The latest episode, though, should serve as a warning to anyone who ever taps a “call” button on their phone or computer they find through a Google business listing. Those phone numbers can be hijacked and switched to someone else without the business or its customers knowing.

That’s how Shareen Grayson of Preston Hollow ended up inviting Stoneham, a convicted thief, through her front door to fix her subzero freezer.

She looked for a repair person on her phone with a Google search, trying to find a number for C&W Appliance Repair, a 60-year-old business in Dallas. She tapped on the Google business listing’s phone number, but didn’t know that it rang instead to a leads company that passed the job on to Stoneham.
I didn’t know that someone other than the original business could go in and hijack a phone number to a competitor’s number, but, ironically, an online search in Google finds other examples.

Someone changed the phone number on this Google listing of a longtime Dallas business. Instead, customers unknowingly called a leads generation business that sent out repair techs not connected to the listed business. That business cried foul — and rightly so.

I contacted Google to ask about its security for business listings. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Davidoff tells me: “We’re always working on new and better ways to fight these [spamming] issues and keep our information up to date. But we tend not to share details behind our processes so as not to tip off these individuals.” (See more of Google’s response below.)

She gets suspicious

Repair people are supposed to fix leaks, not make them. But this time, Stoneham left Grayson’s house with towels on the floor seeping up a leak from an ice maker he took apart. He said he’d come back and finish.

He charged Grayson $1,225 to fix the freezer and the bar ice maker. She paid by check — before the work was done. Ouch. But she was getting ready for a family wedding and needed quick repairs.

When Stoneham wrote an invoice, she noticed it didn’t say “C&W” so she asked him about it. He explained that he took jobs from C&W when they were overbooked, she said.

Grayson looked outside to see if his vehicle carried a company name. It didn’t.

“He didn’t drive a van. He drove a car that got into a couple of wrecks,” she recalls.

Suspicious, she called the phone number on the Google listing again. It rang and rang, but no one picked up. That made no sense.

Shareen Grayson fought back against an appliance repairman who didn’t work for the company she tried to call and who overcharged her.

Shareen Grayson fought back against an appliance repairman who didn’t work for the company she tried to call and who overcharged her.

She scrolled down further in the Google listings and saw a different number for C&W. She called it.

That’s how she learned that C&W’s phone number on Google was hijacked by someone stealing its business.
She spoke to C&W owner David Thompson, who said he lost another customer to Stoneham the same way, and a dozen others to other outsiders in the days his phone number was switched.

Thompson told her that Stoneham worked for his company 10 years ago but disappeared with a company vehicle that turned up later. He told her about Stoneham’s theft conviction and his questionable business practices.

Grayson quickly stopped payment on Stoneham’s check.

Everybody shows up

Stoneham called her to say he was returning to finish. Grayson called Dallas police. The C&W owner was on his way, too. It was like the climax of a bad movie.

When everybody arrived, the officer listened to both sides and declared it a civil dispute. “Let him finish the job,” the officer said.

The officer didn’t check Stoneham for outstanding warrants. He would have learned that Stoneham owes at least $5,000 for active, mostly driving-related warrants in North Texas, including $2,000 in Fort Worth, $2,000 in Dallas and $900 in Plano.

Good news

Stoneham, to his credit, fixed both appliances. That’s huge. But his problems were far from over.
The C&W owner waited outside to confront Stoneham about the hijacked phone number. When Stoneham exited, they exchanged words.

“Basically, I communicated my displeasure,” Thompson says. “He told me to get out of his face, and I said, ‘I haven’t been there yet.'”

Stoneham used this Craigslist ad in the past to attract business. Now he says he buys leads from lead generation companies.

Big overcharge

Customer Grayson investigated how much the parts actually cost. She learned that Stoneham, after charging for parts, marked up her bill another $900, presumably for labor.

Because she had stopped payment, she held the upper hand. She offered Stoneham $550, which allowed $200 for labor. He got angry and threatened her with small claims court.

This week, he changed his mind and accepted her $550.

This was a rarity when a customer pulled a reverse switch on Stoneham. Usually, it’s the other way.
Stoneham talks to The Watchdog

On the phone this week, Stoneham tells The Watchdog that he doesn’t know about the phone hijacking. He does not take my questions.

“I buy leads. That’s all I do,” he says. He cut his ties with the leads company because “I lost too much money on them.”

At the leads company, Niko Volto of Appliance Repair Call Generation in San Jose, Calif., says he intends to cut ties with Stoneham because of these disputes. I ask, who hijacked the number? Volto guesses one of his affiliate marketers is the culprit, but he says he doesn’t know.

Stoneham tells me he doesn’t want to talk about the repair job. “None of that matters,” he says before hanging up. “I don’t care about that. I just want to put this behind me.”

C&W owner Thompson says he learned that businesses should check their phone numbers on Google’s business listings to prevent this.

“Google blocked the email address where it came from, but they would not tell us who it was,” he says. “It’s identity theft.”

Watchdog Nation tip: Don’t assume a phone number found through a search engine leads to the correct company. It wasn’t possible to change numbers in the old Yellow Pages, but in this brave new world, someone can do this and send a Michael Stoneham to your front door.

Coming Sunday: How to avoid hiring the worst garage door company in the nation.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Check out The Watchdog Mondays on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. talking about matters important to you.

At a glance

Here’s what Google spokeswoman Elizabeth Davidoff says about spammers who hijack a Google business listing from a legitimate business to steal away customers.

Q. How is it possible that someone can go in and change a business’s phone number?

Users can use the “suggest an edit” or “report a problem” tools to update business listing information. Users can then vote on whether the edit is accurate or not. Once enough votes are received to be confident that the suggestion is accurate, it’s published. We’re heavily invested in empowering users to contribute their local knowledge.

Q. How big a problem is this?

Overall, the process provides comprehensive and up-to-date info, but we recognize that there may be occasional inaccuracies or bad edits suggested by users. When this happens, we take immediate action to correct the information.

Q. What is Google doing about it?

Spammers and others with negative intent are a problem for consumers, businesses and technology companies that provide local business information. We’re always working on new and better ways to fight these issues and keep our information up to date. But we tend not to share details behind our processes so as not to tip off these individuals.

Business owners can claim their business via Google My Business to manage their info. This is completely free, gives them more control over their business information, and offers them new ways to reach and connect with people on Google Search and Maps.