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Video: A/C repairers: Keeping us cool or taking advantage?

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TODAY
updated 7/10/2012 7:44:56 AM ET 2012-07-10T11:44:56

You depend on them to keep you cool in these dog days of summer, but are air-conditioning repairmen taking advantage, charging you for repairs you don’t need? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen and his team went undercover to find out.

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It's hot out, and we've all been there: Your air conditioning breaks, and it's an emergency. So you call the A/C company. We trust them to fix the problem at a fair price, but are they, really? We tested several of those companies on hidden camera, and experts say: Some are blowing hot air when they hand you the bill.

We set up our hidden camera test right smack in the middle of a heat wave. We rented a house in New Jersey and had three certified A/C experts inspect our system from top to bottom. Their verdicts: Our system was "in very, very good shape," "perfect," and in "excellent shape, good working condition."

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

Then we brought in Bobby Ring, president of a top A/C company and senior vice chair of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. He set up what he said is a common and easy-to-fix problem: a simple broken wire that shuts the unit down. He said he would charge less than $200 to fix it.

“So if a technician tells us, 'You need other work done to fix this problem?'" we asked.

"They're either incompetent or dishonest," Ring replied.

A $692 ‘leak’
We wired the house with eight hidden cameras to capture every angle and had a mom pose as the homeowner. We had her call six companies to fix the A/C. As the contractors showed up, we were watching with our expert from a control room in the basement.

Good news: The first contractor found our broken wire. But instead of fixing it, he wanted to charge us for an expensive part — something called a capacitor.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

"He's either incompetent or he's trying to deceive her," Ring said. "There's nothing wrong with the capacitor, because we checked it."

Yet this guy wanted to replace it anyway. The price: $395. So one of our experts showed him the real problem, fixing the broken wire and turning the machine on in seconds. No broken capacitor there. His company didn't return our calls for comment.

The next guy found and even fixed our broken wire quickly; the unit was working, the fan was turning. So why did he tell our mom that to fix it, he also needed to replace a pricey part?

"Because it's leaking," he told her. "Combustible fluid." It sounded serious, and so was his bill: $692.

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When we revealed ourselves and confronted him, we asked: "Did you actually test the part that you replaced, before you replaced it?"

"Yeah."

"Actually, we were watching you on hidden camera, and you didn't." In fact, what he said was a leak, our experts say, was just harmless rust, and the part worked fine.

In a statement, the company owner told us his employees follow a "...code of ethics...I stand behind my technician...(who)...presented the problem correctly and...made a recommendation based on visual concerns... If for some reason he did not follow our process, he will be dealt with accordingly."

Dishonesty or incompetence?
But the next two appointments shocked even our expert. The first company tried to charge our mom several new parts. Price tag: $850. They weren't happy to see us, even pushing us and threatening a punch in the jaw.

"The experts that we had check this unit say that the capacitor is fine, the contractors are fine, so why were you going to charge her $850?"

"To replace them," the contractor said. "I don't think they're fine."

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His company didn't return our calls for comment.

We thought we'd seen it all, but the next guys told our mom she needed new parts — including one that didn't even exist in our unit. The price: an incredible $950.

"Our experts say this is either dishonesty or incompetence," we said after revealing ourselves. "How do you respond to that?"

Do you want a scam, rip-off or issue investigated?

"I don't have to be on camera," the contractor said. He stuck by his story, telling us the unit needed new parts to work. The company said he was fired.

In the end, the results weren’t good. Experts say six out of six air-conditioning companies — every one we called — tried to charge us for unnecessary repairs.

"I'm really disappointed," Bobby Ring said. "I didn't expect to see the degree of dishonesty and incompetence we did."

Experts say there are honest A/C companies out there. And you should find them before you have an emergency. To make it easier, below are some helpful links to find a trained and reputable air-conditioning contractor in your area:

https://www.acca.org/consumer/find-a-contractor
http://www.hvacradvice.com/maps/locator.aspx

To read a statement in response to this investigation from Rich Bogda, president of A/C company Service Professionals, the company that charged us $692 for repairs, click here .

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

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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