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Money Down The Drain

When 83-year-old Anita Sieferling called a plumber about her blocked toilet, it was her money that started going down the drain.

As CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reports, her total bill came to $10,000.

"It never would have happened if it hadn't been on a Sunday -- you're desperate," said Sieferling.

She called Drain Patrol, a California company promising fast service. They told her she needed a new sewer line all the way to the street.

It also happened to Chris Armstrong. Drain Patrol said tree roots were blocking his line.

"I was expecting to see roots in all these joints coming," said Armstrong.
Armstrong rented a jackhammer and dug up the pipes.

He found nothing in the pipeline.

The Armstrongs threatened to sue. Drain Patrol gave them $4,000 to cover the bills. When Anita Seiferling filed a complaint with state authorities, Drain Patrol quickly refunded $7,000.

But to state investigators, the refunds created suspicion.

"They may pay back all of the money just to avoid the complaint being investigated," says Stuart Rind of the Contractors State License Board.

In fact, of 44 complaints to the Contractors State License Board, Drain Patrol dodged investigation every time by paying refunds. But now Drain Patrol is being sued for $2 million by the San Joaquin County consumer fraud unit.

"We have 150 potential victims and each of them are due some sort of restitution," said David Irey, of the consumer fraud unit.

"The charges are completely unfounded," David Rishwain, Drain Patrol's attorney, tells Blackstone.

Rishwain says the company serves 500,000 customers a year and logs only a few dozen complaints.

But Drain Patrol training manuals obtained by CBS News stress the profit to be made in doing extra repairs. There are also instructions for plumbers to mutter and shake their head when facing a concerned customer.

"I am not aware of that language in the manual," said Rishwain.

The text reads: "You want the service person to look over the job, make a lot of mutterings and head shakings and then present the customer with a bid to do the job."

"Without having reviewed this previously, I would argue that this document is privileged and proprietary information to drain patrol, so I don't want to comment on it," said Rishwain.

But there is an easy way for consumers to protect themselves experts say: no matter how urgent the repair, always get three bids.