Grief stricken customers complain about high bills for crime scene clean-up

It's a service you never want to call, but if something tragic happens, you may have no choice.  Crime scene clean-up is an ugly task for those who perform it.  But customers of one company with Maryland ties say they had no idea how ugly it could be until they got hit with surprising bills for large sums of money.

No matter when it happens, you are never prepared to lose someone you love.  But for Baltimore County's Scott Hofferberth and his family, the sting of losing their mother was amplified by the tragic way she was taken. Hofferberth's sister, Diana Simmons, says, "I was in shock for hours.  I couldn't even function.  I was a zombie."

Simmons and Hofferberth got a call back in November 2011, letting them know their mother, Evelyn, hadn't been to work in two days.  The pair went to her Parkville home fearing the worst.  They found it.  Simmons explains, "When he turned the corner he started screaming and I turned and saw my mother laying there and I ran up the steps grabbed my cellphone and I could just hear him screaming."

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They were screams of anguish only the family of murder victims could ever understand.   66-year-old Evelyn Hofferberth was killed in a murder-suicide.  Her body was left for her children to find.  The murder scene, a grisly chore Hofferberth's grieving children knew they couldn't handle.  Simmons says, "We decided you know we're going to have to get somebody to clean it up.  We're not doing it."

They opted to hire a crime scene clean-up company called Aftermath, Inc.  The Chicago-area company operates locations across the country, including Maryland.  The Hofferberth's contacted the firm at the suggestion of a friend, who works for a local police department.  Hofferberth says, "We didn't know at the time how much money it was going to cost until we got the bill.  The bill was astronomical.  It was $12,000."

The invoice for their $12,000 job shows slightly more than six hours of work done by three Aftermath employees who removed the blood left behind at the scene as well as the tiles underneath the body.  The technicians also cleaned and sanitized the area where Evelyn was found, but Hofferberth says he was stunned the work cost so much, "We wouldn't have even had it done if it was going to be $12,000."

The family was under no obligation to have the scene cleaned.  But they decided to have Aftermath perform the work, signing a contract that spelled out potential charges but contained no estimate.  And they're not the only Aftermath customers who've dealt with sticker shock.

ABC2 News investigators obtained at least two dozen complaints against Aftermath in the last three years.  Those complaints come from 10 different states and have been filed with various agencies including the Federal Trade Commission, Attorneys General from at least four states and the Better Business Bureau.  Steve Bernas, President of the BBB office in Chicago, says, "These are hard to hear cases and they're hard to read cases as well."

In Texas, the family of a suicide victim told the Attorney General in that state they were charged $28,000 to clean a house they claim is only worth $45,000.  In Massachusetts, an Aftermath customer complained to the state's Attorney General about paying almost $12,000 to remove a soiled mattress used by a gravely ill family member who later died.

And here in Maryland, the Hofferberth family complained to Attorney General Doug Gansler's office.  In addition, a Maryland physician who used Aftermath after an accident involving her father at his Baltimore home was sued by the company for the $28,000 cost of the clean-up.  That case was settled, but just like other cases, insurance would only pay a fraction of the cost based on comparisons. 

The customers in those situations had no estimates, although their contracts did contain something else:  a mechanic's lien.  Maryland victims' rights attorney Steve Kelly says it's legal language that people in grief may overlook, "The victim is personally guaranteeing the amount of money owed."

For Aftermath customers whose contracts contained the lien language, they were guaranteeing personal responsibility for the entire cost of clean-up, no matter the price and regardless of a contribution by insurance.  Kelly, who also serves on the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, believes grieving families may not understand the legal terminology in the fine print, especially when they're signing in the height of their grief. 

Kelly finds the contract to be contrary to the company's comforting web message, saying, "The paperwork says

we've got you, you're on the hook.  We're going to sue you personally, assert a lien against your property and we're going to take you to court."

But Aftermath executives are quick to respond about the contract language about liens.  We asked Vice President Tim Reifsteck if technicians at the scene are transparent about what's in the paperwork when they're working with families.  Reifsteck was clear, saying, "I've never taken a family's home."

Reifsteck does admit the company has filed dozens of liens against customers in the past.  We talked about that during an interview at the company's headquarters outside Chicago.  Reifsteck emphasized those mechanics liens, which are no longer included in their contracts, were a way to protect the company from people who might stiff them.

As for customers who feel they got the raw deal with those unexpected bills, Reifsteck says he has regrets, "Absolutely.  Oh god, we hate that as a company.  That's not what we're about.  We're here to assist them through this event in their life."

Reifsteck says they're assisting customers with top notch-service in a tragedy.  We saw evidence of their mission as we toured their facility, hearing how they've created products, training and protocols Reifsteck says are unmatched by their competitors.  It's his hope their methods will one day be used industry wide.  Reifsteck says they don't cut corners and exceed government standards to protect their workers from bio-hazard. 

There's no federal standard for how clean a crime scene must be left.  Aftermath has set their own standard, shooting to achieve hospital-level sterilization, according to Reifsteck, who says, "We're a company that's trying to push it, trying to incorporate everything we can to keep our employees safe and our customers."

But ABRA, the American Bio-Recovery Association, believes Aftermath's work costs too much money.  President Rich Ross says, "They maintain they're doing everything ethical.  We definitely disagree with that."

Aftermath is not a member of the trade organization.  But Ross says members of ABRA have repeatedly audited Aftermath's invoices and raised big questions about how they do business, saying, "I find that their prices are in line with the normal price range, it's their procedures."

But Reifsteck says there's simply a misunderstanding on how they approach a job.  Customers are getting gold standard work, although the complainants say they had no idea that's what they would end up paying for because they only got pricing breakdowns and not estimates.

The company has changed its ways to make sure customers completely understand what they're paying for up front.  Reifsteck says customers now not only get an estimate, they also get a worst case scenario update if it appears more work and more money will be needed.  He says, "We're trying to empower them to say, ‘Yes.  I still want this or no I understand what I am getting involved in'."

At the time of their mother's murder, the Hofferberth family says it didn't understand.  In the end, they paid nearly $3,000 out of pocket when insurance would only cover $9,000 of the clean-up cost.  It was money to cover a tragedy they never saw coming, according to Scott Hofferberth, "It's something you don't expect to ever have to deal with.  You can't plan for it, nobody does."

The Ohio Attorney General's office investigated Aftermath in 2010, ordering the company to provide estimates and let customers know when work they were doing would cost more than they originally said.  Aftermath execs say the number of complaints we've pulled is a tiny fraction of the thousands of jobs they've done.

The company also tells ABC2 it does as much as $900,000 in pro bono work each year, although they didn't respond to repeat attempts to get an answer to how many jobs that figure involves. 

Experts, including Bernas with the BBB, say if you ever need a service like this, you should call your insurance company first to find out which companies they work with and how much of the work will be covered by your policy.  Bernas says it's also important to have someone outside your immediately family look at contracts and paperwork because you may be in an emotional state that makes it difficult to comprehend exactly what you're signing.  

 

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