Telco president Alex Paen said as a former broadcaster journalist, he liked Cardwell's work in Atlanta and enjoyed the concept. But he said the syndication world has gotten only more challenging in recent years as local TV stations have opted for more local live programming and infomercials instead.
So he suggested Cardwell test the waters by creating a thematic special which became “Holiday Scams.” The 30-minute show focuses on holiday-related scams such as porch raiders, folks selling imaginary puppies online and people promoting charities on street corners.
Cardwell taped some of the special over the summer and in the broiling heat of July, he dressed up as Santa, stood on a street with a sign and promoted a fake charity. He wanted to highlight how easy it is to tug at people’s generosity. In less than two hours, he collected $178 and donated it to a real charity.
More than 70 stations nationwide have aired the special and Paen said he hopes the positive feedback he got from it will translate into TV station commitments in the fall for the weekly series. In Atlanta, “Holiday Scams” will air Saturday at 7 p.m. on CBS46.
"We want to solve people's consumer problems or build awareness of a scam," said Marnie Zambri, Cardwell's production manager. "We want to educate people."
When local consumer advocate Clark Howard of clark.com and his syndicated radio show heard about Cardwell's TV show, he was enthusiastic. "It's amazing how easily people are getting taken and it's not just elderly," Howard said. "The scammers can get you through texting and social media, creating urgency so you get ripped off before you have a chance to think through something. Having a show like this to make people paranoid seems like a good idea."
For now, Cardwell’s primary financial driver has been his TrustDale system he created in 2009 after 25 years as a broadcast journalist.
“The national show will hopefully give us an identity beyond the website,” Cardwell said.
Local businesses such as Sentry Body & Painting in Lilburn and John Temmell the Siding Guy of Atlanta as well as national ones like Stanley Steemer pay Cardwell a monthly fee ranging from $250 to $850 a month.
What do they get in return?
Cardwell acts like a customer service department and insurance at the same time. Customers who trust Cardwell can have peace of mind that if they have a less-than-satisfactory experience, Cardwell’s team will handle any problem and make sure it gets resolved, something Cardwell dubs the “make it right guarantee.”
If a business refuses to pay up for shoddy work or service, Cardwell will cover for up to $10,000. (Cardwell said he pays out a disgruntled customer once or twice a quarter and absorbs about $10,000 a year)
His certified businesses are also featured on Caldwell's TrustDale website, which he says receives 20,000 unique visitors a month. And those businesses can promote the TrustDale symbol in their advertising and provide discounts for folks who reference TrustDale if they choose.
Commercials and billboards with TrustDale’s logo have made Cardwell’s name well known in metro Atlanta, probably even better known than when Cardwell was a reporter. The success of the business model has enabled him to hire 14 employees and make a comfortable living for himself as an entrepreneur.
I solicited comments on my AJC Radio & TV Talk blog Facebook page about Cardwell. A few folks who have used TrustDale had no complaints. There were several who didn't trust Cardwell's business model and avoided it because he's getting "paid" to endorse the businesses.
Cardwell understands the concerns but said he purposely limits the number of businesses, mostly one to a category, and will boot those who receive too many complaints. Plus, he said each business has to pass a “rigorous” seven point standard. Businesses can’t just blindly pay a fee to land on his site.
There are no complaints on the Better Business Bureau site against TrustDale. The site receives an average of 4.2 out of 5 on Google reviews out of 161 reviewers with a smattering of folks who feel they paid too much for the services he endorses.
John Sibley, a 34-year-old Marietta mechanic, said after a contractor crushed his gutters, he went on TrustDale and found AquaGuard Foundation Solutions, which did his repair with no problems.
Breda Pest Management of Loganville , which has been around 44 years, was an early adapter of TrustDale earlier in the decade and has stuck with Cardwell the entire time.
"He brings us very good clients who care about their homes," said Matt Breda, president of Breda Pest Management of Loganville, the only pest company listed on TrustDale. "We're not a low-cost company. We're a premium service. You get what you pay for in my industry. He matches us with folks who want to do it the right way."
Laura Lovejoy, Cardwell's general manager, said 94 percent of TrustDale businesses renew every year.
“We connect consumers to good, honest companies,” said Cardwell. “We also hold dishonest companies responsible when they harm somebody.”
He'll highlight scam artists on his website like his recent investigation into Don's Tree Experts, which started with a single complaint but he soon found dozens more. The owner Angela Hodges, he said, has found the sweet zone to rip people off (usually up to $50,000) without attracting the attention of law enforcement.
“We are busier going after people ripped off by businesses that have nothing to do with our website,” Cardwell said.
“Con artists are good at morphing scams,” added Lovejoy.
A fellow journalist at 11Alive, Doug Richards, who I quoted in my 2010 story, wrote on my Facebook page that he respects Cardwell's game: "He's a lovely guy but I've never paid a lick of attention to his endorsements. I'm amazed at the durability of his business model. It appears he works his tail off."