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Call Christina team offers consumer protection tips for contractor fraud

Miami-Dade police nab 12 alleged unlicensed contractors

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MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – For two days, the Call Christina team had exclusive access during a Miami-Dade police economic crimes bureau's undercover operation targeting unlicensed contractors that led to 12 arrests.

Part 1: Miami-Dade police undercover investigation into unlicensed contractors nets 12

Part 2: Unlicensed contractor, once the subject of a Call Christina investigation, arrested in MDPD undercover operation

WEB EXTRA: Behind the scene of the operation

Lt. Efren Lopez, Sgt. Leo Fuentes and Daniel Vuelta, supervisor of the contractor investigation section for the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources explain the two-day undercover operation targeting unlicensed contractors.

In that time, Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez picked up contractor fraud consumer protection tips from investigators.

VERIFY A LICENSE

According to Vuelta, your first step should be to verify a license.

"First thing that someone needs to do is ask if the person is licensed, and then verify with the department if they are licensed," Vuelta said. "Ask if the license is legitimate, who it belongs to, and what service the person and/or company is licensed to perform."

PAPER TRAIL:

Up next said Vuelta, is making sure everything is in writing and require receipts.

"Never pay anybody in cash, and if somebody is asking you to pay them in cash that is a big red flag," he said. "Never leave a verbal contract, always put contracts in writing."

REPORT IT:

If you think you are a victim of contractor fraud, report it to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), your local building and zoning department and to police.

"If it is a licensed contractor the case would be held before a construction licensing board to make a determination if the contractor is in fact guilty of whatever the property owner is accusing him of," Vuelta said. "If it is an unlicensed contractor, then the case is handled criminally. What we want to do is make the homeowner whole."

There are also home insurance implications if an unlicensed contractor performs a job at your home without proper permitting or that doesn't meet code. 

Lt. Efren Lopez said you may pay more for a licensed contractor than an unlicensed contractor but that added expense could save you from a potential financial nightmare down the road.

"There are plenty of contractors out there that are legitimate, but there are quite a few that are not," Lopez said. "And with these illegal contractors, you have no protection against them if you knowingly hire them. If they do a poor job, or they do jobs beyond the regulations of the county, you are going to get fined by the county. If somebody's injured on the job, you are responsible for those injuries because an illegitimate company will not have the insurance coverage necessary."

Sgt. Leo Fuentes told Local 10 News, "Some of these people, the problem is that they don't complete the work or they do shoddy work and they leave the homeowners with an unsafe structure. A lot of people are getting defrauded. They are spending a great deal of money on repairing their houses, making additions, sometimes they are not getting their work completed."

"The county can come in afterwards, if it was something that was done without a permit, now the homeowner is on the hook for paying penalties," he said. "In a lot of incidences, people are going to have to rip down everything that was done and have it done all over again. The job is costing them twice as much."

"Our main focus is to help the property owner after they have been ripped off by somebody," Vuelta said.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: What you should know before hiring a contractor.

WEB EXTRA: What to do before hiring a contractor

WEB EXTRA: Steps to take if you fall victim to contractor fraud

WEB EXTRA: Call Christina conversation about contractor concerns with Ray Robinson  

At this DBPR link you can:

Verify a License

Report Unlicensed Activity

Search Unlicensed Complaints

Discover What Services Require A License

Learn what to look for when verifying a construction contractor's license

At this Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources link you can:

File Contractor Complaints

Verify a license

Learn what to know when hiring a contractor

Steps to take if you suspect unlicensed contractor activity

Learn how to become a licensed contractor

Search for contractors that have been licensed for work on buildings in Miami-Dade County

Search for complaints on contractors working in Miami-Dade County

At this Miami-Dade Police Economic Crimes Bureau link you can:

File a complaint

At this Broward County Environmental Licensing and Building Permitting Division you can:

Search for contractor License

Search for a permit

At this Broward Sheriff's Office link you can contact BSO's Contractor Licensing and Fraud Unit.

FROM THE BBB:

Solicit bids from several contractors. It's important to compare costs before making a commitment to any home improvement project.  It pays to look beyond the lowest bid when looking for a contractor, no matter the size of the project.

Know how to identify traits of con artists. Homeowners can eliminate less-than-reputable workers by being familiar with common traits of rip-off artists:

  • Door-to-door solicitation – Be suspicious of contractors who show up at your door and tell you they have material left over from a previous job at your neighbor's house. This is a common ploy of fly-by-night workers who are not looking to satisfy customers. They'll often perform the job with poor quality and homeowners will not be able to contact the workers again following the poor work.
  • Decision Pressure – A reputable company will give you the time that you need in considering your contracting options and will not pressure you into doing work right away. Consumers will want to check references, check to see if any registrations are needed and if they are valid, compare estimates and read business reviews from the Better Business Bureau to make sure the company is reputable.
  • Paying for the job upfront – It's a red flag if the business asks you to pay for the entire job upfront or strictly asks for cash only.  Paying with a credit card can provide proof of payment.  Funding a project with cash will leave no paper trail and homeowners shouldn't pay anything until at least after the first day of work is completed and only then pay up to 1/3 of the total cost.

Referrals from friends and family are great, but make sure you do your own background check. That includes:

•             Checking their GC license and complaints

•             Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB)

•             You can also check for complaints with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Other departments to check are:

•             Miami-Dade Consumer Protection

•             Broward County Consumer Protection

Also, don't ask the contractor for his references. Instead, ask for the names and numbers for the last three to five jobs he's worked on.

Additional tips:

•             How to Pick a Contractor You Can Trust

•             Contractor Warning Signs

Another option is to run a court case search to see if there are any pending litigations:

•             Miami-Dade County

•             Broward County

It may seem tedious, perhaps overwhelming, but doing the research on the front end will certainly help.

Click here to see more from the BBB on researching contractors.

READ: Dangers of Hiring an Unlicensed Person

FTC: Hiring a Contractor

Follow Christina  Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV

Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10