SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - A quick Google search for "cremation services Sioux Falls" puts Heritage Cremation Provider at the top of your search results. Local funeral homes are warning people to do your research before just calling the first name that pops up.
Heritage Cremation Provider claims to be a "local" and "trusted" cremation service in your area -- where ever that is -- since it isn't listed on the site. A quick call to a 1-800 number, which many funeral homes regularly use, and you're on the phone with someone who says they can help you with your cremation service for your loved one for a price that might seem like a great deal -- but local funeral homes say it's just the opposite.
In fact, Heritage Cremation Provider has been touting itself as Heritage Funeral Home in Sioux Falls, and one funeral director tells KSFY News that they also claimed to be affiliated with George Boom Funeral Home.
The service acts as a broker between a person looking for cremation service and the funeral home, but tells its customers they will handle everything from start to finish.
Heritage Funeral Home in Sioux Falls said they've had ongoing issues with the company for more than a year now -- but most recently -- in the last 24 hours.
"A local hospice had called us about five o'clock in the morning wanting to know why we hadn't come up and picked up someone who'd passed away," said Matt Pepper, a funeral director at Heritage Funeral Home. "And the deal was-- they'd never called us -- they'd called Heritage Cremation Society. [sic]"
Multiple funeral homes in the Sioux Falls area said this has been an issue for them also and is an issue because the service is identifying itself as Heritage Funeral Home.
What Heritage Cremation Provider does, is take all of your information, then brokers that out by calling actual funeral homes and setting up the cremation service. They cannot provide death certificates and don't transport the decedents' remains -- before or after they've been cremated.
But as funeral homes in the area caught on, they said they've been avoiding working with Heritage Cremation Provider and have also notified local hospitals and hospice not to confuse them with their businesses.
Heritage Funeral Home said they filed a lawsuit against the business once they learned that they were using their name and pretending to be based on Sioux Falls.
"We don't have a problem with them using the name 'Heritage Cremation Society' but when they started telling people they were us and we were them, that's when we filed a lawsuit against them," Pepper said.
So KSFY News reporter Erika Leigh called Heritage Cremation Society's 1-800 number and said she needed services in Sioux Falls, she spoke with a woman named "Marsha" who said that the director would handle her arrangements, but was "currently assisting a family."
The response came from a number with "No Caller ID" and a voicemail left for Leigh said the following:
"Hi Erika, this is AJ calling you back from the Heritage Funeral Home, please give me a call back at your earliest convenience."
Multiple lawsuits in both Colorado and Florida list the owners of the business as Joseph Damiano and Anthony Joseph Damiano, a.k.a. "AJ."
KSFY News reporter Erika Leigh returned the call to the 1-800 number and a man with a similar voice to the voicemail left answered. Leigh asked if it was "AJ", he said it was and that she was returning his call, then identified herself as a reporter from KSFY News and explained why she was calling to "AJ" -- because several funeral homes in the area had contacted KSFY with concerns about his business.
Leigh then asked "AJ" why he had left the name "Heritage Funeral Home" on her voicemail.
"AJ": Well first off, our legal name is Heritage Cremation Provider.
"AJ": We are a licensed funeral home, so we do occasionally identify as -- that is correct.
Leigh: And where are you licensed?
"AJ": Nothing wrong, nothing illeg -- Where? The company is actually not licensed at this time.
Leigh: But you just said you were a licensed funeral home?
"AJ": No, we used to be.
Heritage Cremation Provider and isn't licensed in the state of South Dakota -- or anywhere right now -- by "AJ's" own admission.
He said the business hadn't been licensed since June. When Leigh asked him why that was, he said he had no comment and nothing further to say. Leigh pressed, saying a story was airing tonight and "AJ" told her to, "do what she needed to do," if she needed the story to air on Thursday night.
Sioux Falls funeral directors said that while they are all in competition, why they noticed something fishy was going on, they started working together by agreeing not to work with Heritage Cremation Provider, which also occasionally identifies as "Legacy Cremation," especially because they are an unlicensed middle man.
"So the next time they would call they would call us and they would claim to have a different name so that we couldn't make the connection," said Doug Houseman, owner of Chapel Hill Funeral Home "So not only are they misleading families, they're misleading us [the funeral homes]."
Houseman said Chapel Hill has had several clients with issues stemming from Heritage Cremation Provider, many of which had to do with pricing and also just generally misleading people about where they were located and what they could provide.
"We know what promises we can make to a family and keep but we don't someone else has told them, so that can be very troubling," Houseman said.
Heritage Cremation Provider has dozens of negative reviews on the Better Business Bureau's website, Yelp! and Google reviews. The South Dakota BBB said it's important to do some research before you just call the first thing that pops up.
"The internet is a great resource both good and bad, but again, you can look on the Better Business Bureau's website," said Jessie Schmidt, State Director for BBB South Dakota "We offer ratings on all sorts of businesses. There are funeral services here that are accredited with us and have been in our community for a very long time."
Schmidt said your best bet is to look for a provider that you can physically visit. If you're not sure who to use, you can check BBB ratings or ask friends or other family which funeral home they've used in the past.
Schmidt said the other great way to avoid a hassle for yourself, or your family, is to pre-plan your funeral or cremation services if possible.
Schmid said if you have had a poor experience with Heritage Cremation Provider anywhere in South Dakota, you should file a complaint with the BBB on their website. We've put a link under "Related Links."