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Man charged in air-conditioning fraud

(ran NS, S editions of tampa bay AND state)

A Palm Harbor man with a statewide air-conditioning repair business was arrested in Polk County and charged with conducting a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme that preyed on senior citizens there.

Jeffrey T. Lindsley, of Woodgate Drive, Palm Harbor, was charged with felony racketeering, fraud and grand theft. He also was charged with operating a business without a telemarketing license and failure to collect sales tax.

Lindsley, 50, is the owner of Oldsmar-based Future Air Systems Inc., also known as West Town Refrigeration Inc. The company has branches in Tampa, Clearwater, Hudson, Gainesville, Ocala and Winter Haven and has changed locations frequently, investigators said.

"This was a multimillion-dollar business in Polk County alone," said Polk County Detective Robert Colburn. "Every one of the employees who helped us said (Lindsley) brings in between $80,000 and $100,000 a week, just in this area."

Detectives gave this account of the operation:

Using telephone solicitors armed with countywide directories, the company reportedly targeted senior citizens _ often those in living mobile home parks.

Customers were offered a $19.95 air conditioning tune-up, which, if purchased, invariably led to hundreds _ sometimes thousands _ of dollars in unnecessary repairs and other work.

George Waite thought the checkup was a good idea, and a great deal _ even though his 9-year-old air conditioner worked perfectly.

Then he signed a $480-service agreement, to curb the costs of various repairs he was told he needed. After a subsequent maintenance check, Waite was coaxed into buying a new air conditioner for $1,150.

Later, when he was told the new unit needed an additional $571 in repairs, the retired Sears truck driver said he'd had enough.

"I was stupid," said Waite, 71, of Auburndale, who estimates he spent close to $2,300 on Future Air System's recommendation. "I got roped in, believe me. They screwed me good."

Waite was one of five initial Polk County whistleblowers. More have come forward since the recent publicity surrounding Lindsley's arrest, including calls from potential victims in Tampa and Zephyrhills, Colburn said.

Lindsley was released Friday in lieu of $20,000 bond. Calls to his home and Oldsmar office Monday went unanswered.

He has not been charged or investigated locally, according to Sgt. Greg Tita of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department.

West Town's business practices, however, have netted the company 11 consumer complaints since 1988, according to the Pinellas County Consumer Affairs Department.

The Oldsmar branch of Future Air Systems Inc. was fined $20,000 by the State Attorney General's office last August for unfair business practices, according to Lauren Hafner, the office's director of economic crimes litigation for the central Florida region.

Although no criminal charges were filed, the attorney general's office found Lindsley's business guilty of an array of wrongdoings that included failing to inform customers of cancellation rights, charging false taxes and presenting unqualified people as trained inspectors.

In one instance, the company was found to be charging customers a phony Environmental Protection Agency tax on air-conditioning services, which Hafner called "open profit."

Lindsley's arrest Friday came after a six-month investigation of his Winter Haven operations by the Polk County Sheriff's Department and the Attorney General's office.

"There could be virtually thousands of victims," Colburn said. "This investigation is far from concluded. As long as people keep calling in, we'll keep it going."

Residents with questions about Future Air Inc. or West Town Refrigeration Inc. can call Polk County sheriff's officials at 800 226-0344 or the Pinellas County sheriff at 587-6200.