AIRPORT COURTHOUSE — The owner of a Woodland Hills-based carpet cleaning company pleaded guilty on Tuesday to 10 criminal counts of defrauding nearly five dozen clients across Southern California — including one in Santa Monica — through bait-and-switch tactics.

The owner of a business formerly known as Clean Dry USA, Sharon “Sean” Gilboa was accused of falsely advertising a deal in various circulars to clean three carpeted rooms for $49.95 using special technology. Clients who responded to the ad, which appeared in Clipper Magazine and Money Mailer, claimed they instead were met with bullying and intimidation by operatives sent by the company who forced customers into paying more than the advertised price and leaving after performing substandard work. In many cases, the carpet cleaning work commenced before the client agreed to a price, the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case on behalf of the Los Angeles City Attorney, said.

“What’s really important here is that consumers everywhere have to be very careful when responding to an ad that looks too good to be true because if it looks too good to be true, it invariably is,” Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky said.

Gilboa was sentenced to three years probation on terms that he perform 360 hours of hard labor community service, be barred from any cleaning business in California, discontinue all telephone numbers and advertisements associated with the company, and provide a full refund to approximately 60 clients, totaling more than $20,000.

Hard labor community service could involve picking up trash and removing graffiti, Radinsky said.

Mark Werksman, the attorney who represented Gilboa, said the plea agreement was a fair and appropriate way to resolve the case.

“Mr. Gilboa never meant to harm anybody or to deprive anybody of the value of the services that he provided,” Werksman said.

The Consumer Protection Unit with the City Attorney’s Office began investigating the company after it received a complaint from a Santa Monica resident in late 2008. The 85-year-old resident said that a representative sent from the company demanded that she pay $2,000 to clean the carpet in her 570-square-foot apartment, ultimately lowering the price to $795 after she initially refused. The woman ended up paying $560 even though the advertisement listed a quote of $49.95.

The carpet remained wet for three days and when the woman called to complain, the company did not return her calls, the City Attorney’s Office said.

Another woman from Los Angeles was coerced into paying $1,600 after responding to the same advertisement.

While the company is located in Woodland Hills, which would fall under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles City Attorney, all prosecution duties were handed off to the Santa Monica City Attorney because authorities had already began the investigation.

The company has changed names over time, going from Clean Dry USA to Target Carpet Care to Clean N’Dry Carpet, and most recently, SoCal Dry-Tech, Radinsky said.

He added that there is currently an advertisement by SoCal Dry-Tech running in the June/July issue of Clipper Magazine, promoting an identical deal with the same photographs, layout, text and copy, using the phone number (866) 552-5236. Radinsky said he has not received any complaints specific to SoCal Dry-Tech and has heard that the company is under new ownership.

Radinsky said that there has been an increase in carpet cleaning businesses engaging in similar business practices, noting that a colleague recently received an automated call offering a deal to clean carpets at $15 a room.

“Often times these companies are crooked and it’s very important that people check out who they’re doing business with because so-called free estimates can often result in an uncomfortable situation, the situation of guys running the machine before there’s a conversation about estimates,” he said. “In these recessionary times, there are a lot of people desperate to make a buck by ripping someone off.”

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