Hiring a contractor to perform construction work or a kitchen-and-bathroom remodel already comes with built-in stressors: choosing a quality company, affordability, staying on schedule not to mention the disruption it has on the household. The last thing consumers worry about can sometimes be the most costly: getting scammed.
The majority of contractors are honest and reliable, but not always. Inevitably there are cheaters working the system and preying upon the unsuspecting. Sometimes they are rogue contractors, but mostly they are unlicensed fraudsters who cut corners or skip town with your money.
The most common way consumers get ripped off is by someone representing himself as licensed in a trade and requiring the majority of or the entire contract amount to be paid up front. Frequently the phony contractor asks to be paid in cash claiming that he or she can begin work more quickly that way. Unfortunately, we have prosecuted cases where the scammer pockets the money and never comes back.
Before you put off that remodel job for good, here are some tips to help you distinguish the good from the bad.
Fraudulent contractors typically do not have a contracting license or workers’ compensation insurance.
Check whether your contractor is licensed or has disciplinary actions on the Contractors State License Board website (http://cslb.ca.gov/).
If your potential contractor does not appear on the website or does not have a license number, do not hire him or her for your job.
Be wary of anyone trying to convince you that since it may be a “small job” they do not need a contractor’s license. Any home improvement project over $500 requires a licensed contractor.
With extremely limited exceptions, contractors cannot ask for more than 10 percent of the total cost of the project or $1,000 (whichever is smaller) as a down payment.
Do not pay more than that amount before the project begins.
Be wary of door-to-door salesmen offering free inspections. Many times they will claim that there is a “serious” problem such as bad plumbing or leaky roof which will put you in danger and that it needs to be fixed immediately.
Remember that they have an incentive to indicate that a problem exists.
Avoid paying in cash. If your contractor asks for cash only, it may be that they are operating outside of the law and do not want to be traced.
It is much harder to prove that you paid certain amounts if it was a cash transaction.
Paying with credit, debit or check ensures you have a receipt that a payment was made.
Ask for three references from prior customers and then check and verify that those references were satisfied with the contractor and his or her work.
In addition to these signs of fraudulent contractors, it is important to know how to select the best legitimate contractor for your job. The Contractors State License Board created a video that guides you through the process of selecting, hiring and managing a contractor. (http://www.cslb.ca.gov/Consumers/Hire_A_Contractor/Do_It_Right_Video.aspx).
If you believe you have been scammed by a contractor, file a complaint with the Contractors State License Board. (http://www.cslb.ca.gov/Consumers/Filing_A_Complaint/).
The DA’s Consumer Protection Unit is made up of Deputy District Attorneys, Investigators and Paralegals dedicated to protecting consumers and law abiding businesses from fraudulent or unfair business practices. To report a consumer complaint, you can call (619) 531-3507 or email email@example.com.
District Attorney Summer Stephan has dedicated more than 29 years to serving justice and victims of crime as prosecutor. She is a national leader in fighting sex crimes and human trafficking and in creating smart and fair criminal justice solutions and restorative justice practices that treat the underlying causes of addiction and mental illness and that keep young people from being incarcerated.
“As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and you, the community. One way I have been doing that is through this monthly column, where I provide consumer tips on public safety matters.”