A victim in Chevy Chase paid $80,000 to four different contractors to do the same job. Another victim paid $160,000 for three roof jobs that don’t match and a Rockville woman who is legally blind and hard of hearing was bilked out of a few thousand dollars for tree branch work that didn’t get done.
County officials and police on Friday said they are starting a crackdown on illegal home improvement contractors, the type they said commonly victimize seniors and other homeowners to the tune of millions of dollars.
“Our message is simple: if you try to rip off our residents, we will track you down and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” County Executive Isiah Leggett said.
Leggett, police officials and representatives from the county’s Office of Consumer Protection held a press conference in front of the Rockville home of Selma Nootenboom, the legally blind woman who hired an unlicensed contractor to cut branches from a tree, work that was poorly performed.
Montgomery County Police Lt. Michael Hartnett said unlicensed tree workers are referred to as “woodchucks,” and there are more than 300 of them out there. Hartnett said an investigation into one victim of a woodchuck scam turned up 80 more victims of the same suspect.
The scams aren’t confined to tree cutting. Officials said unlicensed contractors usually go door-to-door and offer roof and driveway repairs for cash. A lot of the time, the scammers leave without doing any work or do shoddy work.
“Many of the unlicensed contractors come from out-of-state and may have criminal records,” read a press release from the county.
“Don’t be fooled by an unlicensed contractor who offers to do a job at a lower price than a licensed contractor,” said Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Leonard Howie. “It may seem like a great deal at first, but it may cost much more money in the end to repair shoddy work or to pay another contractor to complete the work if the unlicensed contractor takes your money and never returns.”
Tips for recognizing unlicensed contractors include vehicles with out-of-state license plates and without a business name or printed license number. Police said these contractors also operate by going door-to-door and might offer to drive a customer to the bank or ATM in order to get cash.
The Office of Consumer Protection had its own tips for homeowners before entering a contract for any home improvement work:
- Do not panic and hire someone because they are the only company that can come out to the house right away. Make sure the home improvement contractor is licensed with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC) by calling 410-230-6309 or check online. Also, make sure the contractor is familiar with and has expertise in repairing the type of damage that your house has sustained, such as roofing or foundation repair.
- For tree service or removal, check to see if the business is a licensed tree expert with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Forestry Division, at 410-260-8521 or online at www.dnr.maryland.gov. If a licensed company is used, there is a complaint process through the Department of Natural Resources. If an unlicensed company is used, it is often impossible to track down the company, particularly if they have been paid in advance. In addition, consumers should ask to see written verification of the company’s insurance and workers compensation coverage.
- Get estimates from three contractors. Some fraudulent contractors will capitalize on the situation and overcharge consumers or lead them to believe the damage is worse than it really is. State law requires a written contract for any work completed. A home improvement contract should include the terms and conditions of the warranty. The manufacturer’s warranty should be a separate, written document. The contract must also include: the contractor’s name, address and home improvement license number; the approximate starting and finishing dates; and a description of the work to be done and materials to be used.
- State law prohibits home improvement contractors from collecting more than one-third of the contract amount as a deposit. If the contract is signed in your home, the contract must allow the consumer three days in which to cancel. Under emergency situations only, the consumer may waive this three-day right to cancel, but must sign a special form to do so.
- Check the contractors’ complaint records with the Office of Consumer Protection at 240-777-3636 or online atwww.montgomerycountymd.gov/consumer and the Better Business Bureau at 202-393-8000 or online at www.dc.bbb.org, and with the MHIC and DNR.
Photo via Office of Consumer Protection