With the holiday season fast approaching, you might buy a discounted gift certificate online for your family or friends.
But how good are these deals? And how can you make sure you are getting what you pay for?
There's an exploding market online for websites that give you discounts on local companies. But WNCN found out you need to be careful, because the companies might not be ready for the increased business and there is very little accountability.
Consumer Gena Jacob of Apex is always looking for a good deal, especially online. She thought she had one when she needed six rooms painted.
"The deal was three bedrooms at a certain size," she said.
She wound up spending $585 on LivingSocial, one of several websites that partner with local and national companies to provide discounted vouchers for a service. It's an industry worth billions.
Jacob's deal was for Durham-based Doctor Painting _ just what she needed, she said, after trying to paint on her own.
"It was too much up and down on stools and ladders and I had my both knees replaced six months before I purchased the coupon," she said.
The deal was so tempting Jacob also bought a voucher for her son.
But no one ever got what she paid for.
"They didn't show up," she said. "So I called - no answer."
After an eventual back-and-forth with the company left her unsatisfied, Jacob reached out to WNCN, where her daughter is an employee. WNCN investigated and found a dozen others … who shared the same complaints about Doctor Painting.
"Total no show," she said. "I have now called numerous times and emailed several times. Nothing"
There's a one-and-a-half-star rating on the review site Yelp and a D-minus rating with the Better Business Bureau. The No.1 complaint against Doctor Painting: no-shows with the online deals.
"They took advantage of a widow who's on Social Security disability," Jacob said.
Carlos Rivera, the owner of Doctor Painting, has been in business for eight years and he has done the online vouchers for two-and-a-half of them. He said he wasn't, and still isn't, ready for the amount of business Living Social brought his company of eight painters. Rivera said the prices are very cheap, which makes it difficult for Doctor Painting to complete all the jobs.
Living Social, based out of Washington, turned down a request for an interview. But the company did say in an interview that prior to working with any merchant, they complete a thorough vetting process which includes reviewing a merchant's online presence, researching online reviews and ratings and checking public data sources to ensure potential partners are in good standing.
They admitted to receiving complaints against Doctor Painting, but WNCN never received an answer about what they do if a company's standing slips because they can't handle the increased business.
While Attorney General Roy Cooper told WNCN his office hasn't received a complaint against Doctor Painting, they have received 11 complaints against online deal websites _ eight of those against LivingSocial.
Cooper says consumers looking for a deal online should be careful.
"Smart people get into situations where they get ripped off," Cooper said. "We want to hear about it because we can use that information, not only to help you, but to help other people."
Doctor Painting's Rivera said it took up to five months for LivingSocial to approve him. Now, the company just sends him an offer to re-sign their voucher deal when the last one expires.
And just as those deals are tempting for the customers, Rivera said a bigger client base is tempting for him.
WNCN asked why he was still doing the same amount of work if he couldn't keep up with the past work.
Rivera, speaking in Spanish, replied, "Because during this time of year, demand is slow, so we think we can play catch up."
That playing catch up comes as more than 100 other people have already signed up for Doctor Painting's current deals.
WNCN asked, "Is it irresponsible to continue to promise two coats of paint for four rooms or three rooms or two rooms or even one room when you don't have the manpower to do that yet?"
"Oh yes, yes, I agree it's irresponsible, but we're trying to figure out what to do and be more flexible," Rivera said in Spanish.
He also plans to hire more painters, schedule better and, when he can, offer upset customers extra deals.
WNCN asked, "What do you want to tell these people who think that they're getting ripped off?"
"We're not ripping you off because you pay the money to LivingSocial," he said. "They'll return it."
That is if you know to ask for it. Jacob said LivingSocial was quick to offer her so-called "deal bucks" with no mention of cash.
"That means that I can use that money only for LivingSocial deals,. but I don't have a lot of trust in using that," Jacob said.
Because Jacob accepted the "deal bucks" from LivingSocial, the company refused to give her a cash refund.
Before signing for a voucher online, make sure to do your homework on the company. And Cooper said to contact the Attorney General's office, no matter how much money was involved. Even if a deal is for $10, it's a lot of money if hundreds of people are in the same boat as you.