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Sears must pay termite customers

Jane Kelley's house got a clean bill of termite health from Sears Roebuck & Co. inspectors in February 1995. But the 54-year-old former Chicago police officer knew that wasn't true when "a swarm of about 50,000 of 'em" coated a room inside her St. Petersburg home months later.

It was nothing $1,400 wouldn't fix, Sears told her. She paid, but the termites came back. After much cajoling, Sears reluctantly returned.

"The carpenter they brought with them to replace a wall well, I could have done a better job myself," Kelley said. "I told the manager that he was a liar and a cheat and that if you're ripping me off this bad, I can't imagine what they were doing to all the older people around here. I just said forget it."

Kelley is one of dozens of Tampa Bay residents, along with hundreds of Floridians, who have had trouble with Sears' termite eradication service. Now, Sears is going to pay.

A settlement reached Wednesday with the state attorney general's office will mean refunds and re-treatments for some Sears customers.

According to the settlement, Sears sold many Floridians the wrong termite treatments. In some cases, the chemicals used by Sears were used at half the recommended strength. Also, the settlement says, Sears forced customers who signed up for long-term termite servicing contracts to pay for work on their homes to keep warranties valid.

Sears, which has 100,000 customers for its termite service in Florida, admits no wrongdoing in the settlement. Sears will pay $200,000 to cover the cost of the investigation by the state.

The company and the attorney general's office have received 480 complaints about Sears' service in the last three years, and they suspect more customers are eligible for some relief in the settlement. A Sears spokesman said the company doesn't expect many more complaints beyond what it has already received.

The heart of the problem, said assistant attorney general Bob Buchner, was that Sears sold people chemical treatments for underground termites when in fact the customers had drywood termites, which require "tenting." The process involves applying a chemical throughout a house while it is tented.

In Kelley's case, the contractors did not apply much chemical around her house the first time. While she clearly had drywood termites _ the kind that swarm _ she said that Sears was using chemicals for the underground type. Despite the work Sears did, Kelley still isn't sure they killed all the termites.

Kelley may be part of a group of Sears customers who are entitled to a full refund under the settlement because they received the wrong kind of termite treatment. In the future, Sears will have to disclose the kind of chemical it uses to treat homes for termites and at what strength.

Some customers like Kelley bought service contracts with Sears for $180 a year. The contracts had warranties that would cover up to $250,000 of termite damage to a home that Sears inspected and treated.

However, said the state's Buchner, after the contract was signed, Sears would require homeowners to remove stucco and other parts of the home that were in contact with the ground. If they didn't, the warranty would be invalid and Sears would cancel the contract.

Under the settlement, Sears customers who had to pay to make their homes comply with Sears' guidelines will be reimbursed by Sears. Those who had their contracts canceled unfairly will also receive refunds. Sears often terminated these contracts without giving reasons, Buchner said. The agreement stipulates that Sears cancel the contracts only for reasons spelled out in the contract.

Other customers who had "subterranean" or underground termites that weren't killed with two treatments by Sears will receive free treatment using new termite-killing technology.

"I don't mind paying for something that works," Kelley said, adding that she has stopped trusting people and contractors in her six years in Florida. "But when you're wrong, you're wrong."

To find out more

Wednesday's settlement means refunds and/or free termite treatments for some customers who had service from Sears after Jan. 1, 1994. To see if you're eligible, call (800) 724-1747 within the next 60 days.