When Trina Swanson signed up with Extreme Snowplowing last fall, she felt assured of clear access for the ambulances and other medical vehicles that regularly attend to her disabled son.
The same for Yvonne Lewis, who depends on Meals on Wheels to assist her 96-year-old mother. After sending in a check for $289 last October, she thought she had no winter worries ahead.
But that was not the case.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman came to Buffalo on Tuesday to file civil charges against the company and its owners, who he said fleeced 400 Western New Yorkers out of about $100,000 just when they needed it most -- during the early December storm that buried some neighborhoods under more than 40 inches of snow.
"There were people who relied on them, and they just failed to deliver," Schneiderman said during his first visit to his Buffalo regional office in Main Place Tower. "Now we're seeking civil damages so the guys who put this scam together can never do it again.
He called the alleged scheme "fairly flamboyant" and its business owners "incredibly aggressive."
"It's unfortunate that in economically hard times, there's always a new wave of scams that come up," Schneiderman said.
The new attorney general filed civil charges seeking restitution of the money against Scott Romero and Richard Marrapese of Rochester, owners of Extreme Snowplowing. He said he has frozen their assets and prohibited them from destroying company records, and will seek an injunction to prevent them from doing such business again.
"I'm confident we will recover something for the victims," Schneiderman said.
That was good news for Swanson and Lewis. They both responded to Extreme Snowplowing ads, only to never see any snowplow -- extreme or otherwise. Swanson said her hard-hit Depew driveway remained plugged even though medical personnel must regularly visit her 10-year-old son, who is bedridden with a neurodegenerative disease.
She joined a Facebook group of others who felt victimized by the company after they were also left stranded. She then filed a complaint with the attorney general.
"If I ever wanted it, it was during that storm," she said of the need to have her driveway plowed.
In the same predicament was Lewis, an East Side resident. "But they never, ever showed up," she said. "It's a shame someone would do that."
Both women said they repeatedly called the company but got only voice mail and no return calls.
Extreme and other snowplowing companies invited special scrutiny from the Buffalo Common Council after South Buffalo and other sections of the city got walloped by the Dec. 2-3 storm.
The company was the target of "at least three dozen" complaints, Peggy Penders, public relations manager at the Better Business Bureau, told The Buffalo News at the time of the storm. "They've hit our area pretty wide, with a large concentration [of complaints] in Lancaster, Buffalo and Cheektowaga," she told The News in December.
Residents in Williamsville, Kenmore and Orchard Park also contacted the bureau to report problems with the firm, Penders said, while Cheektowaga police logged a dozen complaints from residents who said they were scammed by Extreme.
The attorney general said Extreme also defrauded customers by misrepresenting itself in advertisements, claiming that it was fully insured, used 24-hour radio dispatch and had 15 trucks available. He said his probe revealed that all such claims were false -- with only six trucks, prepaid cell phones that were difficult to contact and no insurance.
Schneiderman said Tuesday that his office will consider criminal charges, but sources acknowledged that such charges are often difficult to sustain.
The action was filed in State Supreme Court in Erie County on Monday by Assistant Attorney General James M. Morrissey, and Karen M. Davis, senior consumer fraud representative, under the supervision of Michael J. Russo, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Buffalo office.