Customers ‘duped’ by awning installer then sued for throwing shade

When terminal cancer patient Amy Horan booked the installation of an awning over her backyard spa, she pictured herself spending the final months of her life enjoying the home she had worked so hard to build with her family.

Instead, she found herself almost $10,000 out of pocket, with no awning, and sued by the man who had promised to install it.

Amy Horan says she has been left $9500 out of pocket. Credit:Paul Jeffers

Horan had hired Andrew Valk and his company, Shade Solutions Australia, after seeing an advert online. She was told the awning would be installed the following week and she paid for it in full – but says the work was never done.

The Age spoke to more than a dozen clients and former employees of Shade Solutions who claim to have been duped out of thousands of dollars by Valk.

Andrew Valk runs Shade Solutions Australia.

In some cases, according to these clients and former employees, Valk threatened customers with defamation lawsuits after they vented their frustrations online when work they had paid for was not completed.

That’s what happened to Horan in August after she wrote on Facebook: “I got scammed out of $10,000 from a company called Shade Solutions Australia.

“I already have a list of people whom I have spoken with that he has stolen from, but I need more. This man should be in prison.”

According to a writ filed in the County Court, Valk sued Horan for defamation on the grounds she had brought “hatred, ridicule and contempt” to him and his business, caused him financial loss and damaged his reputation. The matter is yet to be determined by the court.

In one email exchange seen by The Age, Valk told another customer earlier this year to remove “every word you have written online” about the company or “swift legal proceedings will commence”. He cautioned the man against talking to the media and added he would seek costs exceeding $100,000 in court.

“Note the last person who told me ‘I am speaking to A Current Affair’ has subsequently been forced to sell her home to raise the funds to settle a defamation writ brought against her in the Victoria County Court [sic].”

Amy Horan at her home in Koo Wee Rup.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Consumer Affairs Victoria issued a public warning about Valk’s company in August after receiving more than 70 complaints. Valk is disputing the allegations and wants an investigation into the watchdog.

Former employees and customers told The Age that Valk’s pattern was to stall the process as the date to start work drew closer by failing to answer calls and emails and then ignoring requests for refunds.

Horan said she took to social media to vent her frustration and warn others against doing business with the company after months of back and forth with Valk to get a refund.

“I wanted my house completed, so I could enjoy it before my time’s over,” Horan said. “Now we’re stuck with a spa. We still haven’t got a cover over it, and he’s got our money.”

Some customers The Age spoke to asked not to be named because they feared legal repercussions or that their payments would not be refunded.

The Age spoke to Valk at length about the contents of this article, but he declined to speak on the record, citing ongoing defamation proceedings.

“Our company has successfully supplied and installed awnings and shade products to hundreds of happy homeowners across Victoria and continues to do so regardless of your false and misleading posts,” Valk wrote in response to criticism online.

Valk has repeatedly blamed COVID-related disruptions to supply chains for the delays, but online correspondence shows customers were experiencing similar issues getting their orders in 2019.

When a customer complained about delays that year, Valk referred to “our commitment to quality”.

“It’s a long story, and we don’t want to waste your time with a long-winded explanation,” he wrote.

Those who took the company to civil and administrative tribunals in Victoria and NSW said Valk did not attend the hearing or repay the money when ordered by the tribunal to do so.

Some said they had recouped the funds after lengthy delays, while others gave up on getting a refund. Tim Gambin, who paid $7000 for an awning, said he only got refunded after confronting Valk.

“I’m not a scary guy or a big guy but … I was prepared to do anything that day to get my money back.”

Former Shade Solutions construction manager Andrio Torcasio said Valk would tell customers that products were in stock when shelves were bare and use their deposits to place an order overseas without warning them of potential delays.

Former Shade Solutions worker Andrio Torcasio said he would often face disgruntled customers.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“Then when the delays came it was a stalling process,” he said. “He would just completely lie and then block people and not respond to anyone’s calls. He would just say: ‘Just block him.’”

Torcasio, whose employment was terminated earlier this year, said he would often face disgruntled customers. He said some had paid thousands for products only to receive the wrong item months later.

In response to negative feedback online, Valk accused complainants of being a “troll” and a “Karen”. He suggested they suffered from mental health issues and referred them to support service Beyond Blue.

In a submission to the consumer affairs watchdog, another ex-employee said Valk had also dismissed the complaints as being from “vindictive ex-girlfriends, jealous competitors and bitter ex-wives” who were “out to destroy him”.

The owner of a pub on Victoria’s south coast who paid Valk almost $20,000 for a roof that was never installed said he had resigned himself to the fact he would never get repaid: “I’ve got five kids, I’ve got family members close to dying, how much do you need on your plate?”

Consumer Affairs Victoria director Nicole Rich told people to beware when entering into a contract with the company and advised current customers to refrain from making further payments until the works had been carried out.

Michael Bawden, who said he lost about $20,000 to a botched decking and outdoor kitchen job, said the experience had made him untrusting of others.

“We told him that most of the money that was getting used was an inheritance and he didn’t even bat an eyelid,” he said. “Now we don’t trust anyone.”

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