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Video: Rossen Reports: Are mold contractors lying?

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updated 5/4/2012 7:55:49 AM ET 2012-05-04T11:55:49

Toxic mold in your home can be dangerous. But when you call mold contractors for help, are they competent and honest? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen went undercover to find out.

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It can be scary, finding mold in your home. So when you see black spots, you call a mold contractor. But experts say some of those companies are profiting off our worst fears, charging you big bucks for repairs you don't need. We went undercover with hidden cameras to put them to the test.

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

A basement playroom, a concerned mother, and a parade of mold contractors she called for help. "I have my son down here a lot, and there are some dark spots that I'm a little worried about," she tells them.

But that mom is really an undercover TODAY show producer. And those spots aren't mold: They're really women's eye shadow. We know, because we put them there. So would these mold contractors know the difference, or charge us big money to solve a problem our experts say doesn't exist?

"You're saying this is mold?" I asked one. “Do you want to hear what it really is? Women's eye shadow that we put there this morning."

"Wow," the contractor replied.

Profiting from fear
Some wanted to charge us hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Our hidden cameras rolled to expose what some experts say is a growing problem, in a growing industry.

Howard White, a mold remediation supervisor with Maxons Restorations, a top company, worked with us for our investigation. "Typically they're preying on people's fears," he said. "People just want to know their homes are clean and safe."

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So we set up an experiment, renting a house in suburban New Jersey. We hired two reputable environmental testing companies to inspect the home from top to bottom, testing for mold and moisture on surfaces and in the air.

The results showed the house was safe. Then we had our expert dab black eye shadow in three spots. Our undercover producer called several mold contractors to inspect her basement, posing as a worried mom. Then we installed eight hidden cameras and watched from our control room upstairs as the contractors showed up.

"I'm in the job to sell basement waterproofing and mold remediation. I don't think you need us," one said. "I would just bleach, bleach, bleach. Kill with bleach what's here, and then wipe it up."

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Two more contractors came in, and they didn't charge us either. But then our results took a sharp turn. Two minutes after stepping into our basement, one contractor said, "It's there, definitely mold, there's no question about it."

He said two of our spots were mold, and we also had signs of water damage. To fix it, he'd need to cut out sheetrock and spray chemicals. "Technically, I'm not supposed to say yes without testing it, but you don't need to pay for a test because it's definitely, this is definitely mold," he said. (Remember: It was really eye shadow.)

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"He said it's definitely mold; how does he know?" Howard White commented.

When the contractor quoted a price of $1,050, that's when I stepped in. "You're telling me you thought that was mold, and you're a certified mold technician?" I said.

The contractor said his company is honest, and he has many happy customers. "Where is it going on TV?" he asked of our report.

"NBC News."

"NBC News. That's nice, thank you. You should feel good about yourself."

‘You have a $10,000 problem’
"Yes, that's definitely black mold," the next contractor said. "I don't think you need to test, it's a waste of money." His cleanup cost: $1,200. "Do it, it's really cheap," he advised.

I had some questions for him: "Do you know what this is? It's women's eye shadow that we put there this morning ... Why wouldn't you say to the homeowner, 'I can't tell you if there's a mold problem to give you an estimate?' You didn't do that."

"Because we usually do a test after we clean it."

"So they have to spend the money and pay you over $1,200 before you'll test to see if there was a problem? Does that make sense?"

"Yeah, it does. We do it all the time."

But we hadn't seen anything yet. The next contractor didn't waste any time, saying, "That's black mold ... You've gotten water in here, I can still smell the dampness from it."

He said we had serious water leaks, causing the mold. But remember, two reputable companies checked the house for mold and moisture and didn't find any serious problems.

“So how big a problem do you think I have here?" our producer, posing as a worried mom, asked.

"Well, I think you have a $10,000 problem."

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That's right: His estimate was $10,871 to install a new drain system. When I confronted him on camera, he said, "That's mold, it's absolutely mold." Then he asked if we could turn our camera off. We said no.

Then he told me he was not a mold expert, and thought he'd been called for a "water problem." "I am not required to test the house officially for mold," he said.

In the end, five out of eight mold contractors, more than half, wanted to charge us for work that experts said we did not need. "It questions the integrity of my entire industry when I see people like this," Howard White said.

Experts say, mold contractors should always do a complete visual inspection. They say some of the guys at our house just didn't do that. If your home has visible mold that is growing in size, a serious water problem, or your family is getting sick, those are warning signs, and a contractor may not need to do testing.

But either way, it doesn't hurt to get a second opinion.

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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