MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Sometimes you have to think like them in order to catch them.
Undercover detectives know just how to go after the so called contractors who end up taking your hard-earned money without doing any of the work.
"We need to put these people out of business," said Detective Alfonso Najera, who is with Miami-Dade Police’s Economic Crimes Bureau. "It's a plague."
The Leave It to Layron team was invited to go undercover with Miami-Dade detectives as they conducted a sting operation.
They worked with the owner of a dilapidated home in NW Miami-Dade. Two undercover officers posing as unsuspecting homeowners in need of remodeling help started calling various contractors to the home.
“Appointments are made, and they appear as scheduled," said Najera. "They let them make the offer and offer their services, inspect the house --- get written estimates, in most cases."
Najera said that wouldn’t be a problem if the contractors they called were legitimate. Investigators say the contractors they’re after are not licensed to perform any of the work they're bidding for. They’re also not legally allowed to advertise their services.
"They have different styles," Najera said. "Some of them actually, pretend to begin the work, some other ones do some of the work and some others they just take the money and you never see them again."
Detectives said the contractors they called have outstanding cases or complaints against them. The incidents were referred by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Miami-Dade’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources Contractor Licensing and Contractor Enforcement Section also referred some cases. State and county investigators were on hand during the operation to verify the contractors were unlicensed.
Rodrigue Lovinsky was one of the first arrested during the two-day operation.
He allegedly offered to repair the sting's bait house for $80,000.
Detectives said the open case against Lovinski dates back more than a year. He allegedly took $5,000 toward a $16,500 job that he never did.
The homeowner said when he tried calling Lovinski, he was threatened. Lovinski allegedly said he’d burn down the homeowner's house with his family in it if he called again.
"That's the type of threat I would not do to anybody," Lovinski said, after he was arrested.
The victim’s complaint landed in the Economic Crimes Bureau. Authorities said Lovinski is unlicensed. He's also facing grand theft charges.
"Go [expletive] yourself," Lovinski told the LITL team.
"The fact that they're requesting, soliciting money for work that will never be done from these victims, that constitutes a crime," Najera said.
The LITL team watched from an undercover police vehicle as contractors pulled up in front of the rundown home, time and time again, to pitch their services. Some even went up onto the roof with measuring tape. We saw vehicles offering roof work, fence installation, sprinkler systems, you name it.
"They diversify," Najera said. "They do it all."
Some of the vehicles were wrapped with logos and company names.
"That's part of the whole scheme — the deception game that they play," said Najera. He said contractors' vehicles should show their license numbers. We saw few of those, but Najera said even the license numbers can be fake, or stolen.
Once the bids were made, or the estimates were given, or the price was set, the contractors pulled away from the home. Within seconds, undercover and marked units were on their tailgates to make the traffic stops and subsequent arrests — 14 during the two-day sting. All of the suspects were taken to the county jail for contracting without a license/grand theft.
"It is extremely important that the public be aware and become familiar with who they're doing business with," said Najera. "Do some research, please? It's worth it."
In Miami-Dade, the Contractor Licensing and Contractor Enforcement sections of the Regulatory and Economic Resources department investigates complaints involving contractors with or without licenses.
Consumers can also contact the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office also has a specialized Economic Crimes Unit.
Broward County consumers can find information about reporting complaints at this Broward County page.
Monroe County consumers can find contractor/unlicensed contractor complaint information at this Monroe County page.