"Andrew" does online marketing for a living and recently started dabbling in real estate. He estimates he's spent $20,000 in repairs on a house in the Northeast that he hopes to flip. Via Craigslist, he hired a contractor named Lewis Benson to do some work on the home's exterior. He paid Benson $1,400. Afterward, Andrew couldn't track down Benson for three working days via phone or e-mail. He suspected a scam. So Andrew did what any average hipster with Web-savvy friends would do -- he created a site to destroy Benson's reputation.
"This motherfucker will screw you over," declares Andrew's first post on LewisMBenson.com. "He'll bid your remodeling job, take your money, then disconnect his phone and stop responding to emails." The site gleefully displays links to Benson's Facebook and MySpace profiles under the prompt "Here's some links to light him up at."
The site also directs readers to Case.net to view a number of Jackson County court claims in which Benson is a defendant. Does this mean Benson is a con artist?
All the Case.net
filings really prove is how much Benson's life has sucked in recent
years. One filing is the result of a car accident that happened 14 years ago. There's a record of his 2000 divorce and the paternity suit that followed. He's been ticketed for speeding, driving
without his vehicle's registration, and having an adult passenger in his vehicle without a seat belt. He got a DWI in 2005 and had his license revoked when he refused to take a Breathalyzer; then he received a ticket for driving without a license. He's missed a rent
payment here and there, which isn't so rare in this economy.
When we e-mailed Benson, he called back immediately. With
weariness in his voice, he explained that he's had only two unhappy
clients in four years of business. Andrew is one. The other is a man
in Shawnee named Jason Thomas Ross, who Benson thinks is the author of the second complaint posted at LewisMBenson.com.
According to Benson, his two-man company, Fix-All Remodeling, was hired to do the cheapest possible cosmetic repairs on the exterior of Andrew's property. Benson started the work, then realized that the problems with the home's porch were more than cosmetic -- the rotting wood was a safety hazard, he says.
"We tried to walk away at that point," Benson says, "But he called back and asked us what it would take to do it the right way, bare minimum."
Benson and Andrew negotiated further, and they both agree that Benson was paid $1,400 for the work. But Andrew says once he was paid, Benson changed his phone number. That was last Wednesday. He says Benson didn't show up to work on the house on Thursday, and ignored Andrew's e-mails Friday.
Benson's explanation: He had to change his family's cell phone plan.
Here's where things get weird. Through some Googling, Andrew says, he found a Craigslist ad Benson posted for a laptop he was selling for $1,200 (The ad specifies he'll take cash, "or will trade for a good motorcycle.") Andrew got a friend to reply to the ad, and Benson responded right away. The friend and Benson agreed to meet Sunday at a McDonald's to make the sale. When Benson showed up with the laptop, Andrew and three friends were waiting. Andrew says that he told Benson he could "make things right" by giving him the laptop, and they could call it even. If he refused, Andrew said, he'd expose Benson as a fraud.
Benson says Andrew's exact words were "I'm going to ruin your fucking life." He told Andrew that he'd see him in court, and left with the laptop. That same night, LewisMBenson.com went live.
Andrew disagrees that his tactics are the online equivalent of killing a spider with a sledgehammer. He says his site is a vehicle for consumer advocacy and he believes that Benson had every intention to cheat him from the beginning. Suing Benson would incur court costs, Andrew says, and even a judgment in his favor wouldn't guarantee him his money back.
But surely Andrew could have given Benson more than five days -- two of which were over the weekend -- to get back in touch? "I guess," Andrew says.
Since putting up the site, Andrew has heard from two more customers who say that after they paid Benson, he changed his number and ducked them to avoid finishing the work.
In his latest post, Andrew writes that Benson "hasn't exactly covered his tracks well." He points The Pitch to several suits against Benson labeled "Landlord Complaint." But if Andrew views those as indications of other scammed homeowners who'd sued Benson, he's wrong. A landlord complaint typically means that a landlord has had to sue a tenant for unpaid rent. Sorry, Andrew -- the Better Business Bureau you are not.
Even though he has created a site to call Lewis Benson out in the most public way possible, Andrew asked us not to identify him by his real name. He fears for his safety, he says.
Benson is exploring his legal options to get the site taken down. A contractor's good name is his most valuable asset. "Regardless if this stops today, he's already ruined my work for me," he says. "One bad word can ruin a lot."
Update: Andrew would like us to make it clear that while he's authored most posts on the site, he doesn't own the site itself, nor the domain name (a blogger friend helped). Also, he says he showed up at McDonald's with two friends, not three, and says he didn't intend to appear intimidating.
Since this blog posted a couple hours ago, we've received two e-mails from people claiming that Benson took their money. One says he lost $600 to Benson in November '09 -- he's the actual author of the second post on LewisMBenson.com. Another former client claims he was scammed for $1,200, and he'd posted his experience on Angie's List (you have to log in to read it -- search "Benson Remodeling").
First image via Facebook. Second image via 100waystogetrevenge.wordpress.com