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North Texas woman believes late stepmother was exploited by solar panel contractor, lender

Local woman believes late stepmother was exploited by solar contractors
Local woman believes late stepmother was exploited by solar contractors 04:38

JACKSBORO (CBS News Texas) - Jan Jones was mourning the loss of her stepmother and helping her father get his estate in order, when she noticed something that surprised her. 

It was an automatic charge on her stepmother's bank account for about $300 a month from a company called GoodLeap. Jones soon learned that her stepmother had taken out a loan with the company to finance $60,000 worth of solar panels. 

It's a debt her father will now assume. The collateral is the house he shared with his wife.

"Now he's stuck with it," Jones said. 

North Texas woman believes late stepmother was exploited by solar panel contractor, lender 02:19

Jones says her stepmother, Paula Sharp, struggled with dementia and she believes she was misled on the cost of the panels by Daybreak Solar, the company that sold them. 

"Paula had told me the story about them being free," said Kevin Sharp, Jones' brother. 

But according to the 25-year contract Paula Sharp signed with GoodLeap at the age of 80, by the time the loan is paid off it will have cost nearly $87,000. 

The solar panel industry is exploding. It's not uncommon to see panels on the rooftops of homes. But with popularity comes the potential for abuse.  

The I-Team reviewed dozens of complaints against solar companies -- many from people who write they felt duped by salespeople about the true cost of the panels. Consumer experts said there are several misleading tactics some contractors can use, like overstating the potential savings on your electric bill or promising a large federal tax cut you may not actually qualify for. 

It's not clear what happened in Jones' stepmother's case. But the I-Team looked into both GoodLeap and Daybreak Solar. 

Daybreak had an F rating with the Better Business Bureau and over the past five years, more than 20 customers have filed complaints about it with the Texas Attorney General's Office. 

GoodLeap, meanwhile, has an A- rating with the Better Business Bureau, and has had at least 70 complaints filed about it with the Texas Attorney General's Office. Several people, like Jones, wrote they believe their parents were deceived. 

One woman from Houston claimed her father was surprised to see his name on a GoodLeap contract for $47,000.

A San Antonio woman complained her 77-year-old mother committed to a 20-year contract with GoodLeap that is still in effect after her death. 

Mary Spector, a professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law, said the home equity older homeowners have accrued can be used to finance deals like these, making them attractive customers. But they're also much more vulnerable ones. 

"People do lose cognition over time and may be unfamiliar with the technology that's being involved," Spector said. "Sometimes the vendors use tablets to have someone sign and so you don't see the whole contract, you just see the screen and so the homeowner may be unaware of everything that she is signing."

In a statement, a spokesperson for GoodLeap wrote that age discrimination laws prohibit it from taking age into account when writing a loan, but that it does take the complaints of elder abuse seriously.   

We tried contacting Daybreak Solar, but learned the company is out of business, like several other contractors who have worked with GoodLeap.

GoodLeap's spokesperson wrote that many complaints against it involve third-party salespeople and installers, not the lender itself. The company wrote it actively monitors every contractor and cuts ties when necessary. And as for Jones' stepmother, the company said she never complained. 

Consumer advocates say lenders do have some liability in the products they finance. GoodLeap was actually named in a 2022 lawsuit by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office that accused seven solar panel companies of fraud. 

The case invoked a federal regulation known as the Holder Rule. 

"It ensures that a lender that partners with a seller of goods or services to finance a customer's purchase is going to be subject to any claims, any defenses, with which the debtor could assert against the seller," said Adam Welle, an assistant attorney general at the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. "The rule is really designed to prevent harm to customers who are defrauded."

The suit ended earlier this year with a settlement in which GoodLeap made no admission of wrongdoing, and paid $65,000.

GoodLeap's spokesperson pointed out that the Holder Rule is written into every one of its loan agreements. 

The I-Team checked, and it is written into Jones' late stepmother's.

As GoodLeap continues to take monthly payments from Paula Sharp's bank account, Jones and her father are trying to figure out if there is a way to get out of the loan agreement.

"I don't really know what to do," Jones said.

Consumer tips

Experts the I-Team spoke with said solar panels can be a good investment for some homeowners. But they can come with a high price tag, so it's essential for buyers to do their research.

If you're interested in installing solar panels on your home, here are some things you should know before signing a contract: 

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do independent research on how much electricity a solar panel system can generate and speak with your utility company about potential savings before you invest. 
  • Be wary if a salesperson pressures you for a signature before you're comfortable. 
  • Ask for a hard copy of the contract.
  • If the transaction is done via a door-to-door salesperson, there's an added protection. In these situations, customers have a three-day window to cancel after signing, with no penalty.
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