A new anti-contractor fraud campaign is underway with a two-fold goal — educate Mississippi consumers on the best practices when choosing a contractor, particularly in the wake of a natural disaster, and give would-be bogus contractors a stern warning that preying on vulnerable homeowners will not be tolerated.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our phones just lit up. We were swamped with complaints,” said Stephanie Sills Lee, executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Contractors (MSBOC). “This campaign is aimed at being proactive; to stop bogus activity before it occurs.”
Lee and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood recently made public the new awareness program. The fact the announcement came as the state recovers from some recent natural disasters is no coincidence, according to Hood.
“Mississippi has been hit hard by storms in 2013, everything from tornadoes to hailstorms, causing an increase in out-of-state contractors moving to the state looking for work,” Hood said. “Many of these contractors are unlicensed or fraudulent.”
Lee said the MSBOC has yet to receive many complaints from storm events in early 2013 such as the tornados in South Mississippi, metro Jackson hailstorm in April and coastal flooding this month. But, she expects it.
“We’re still in the honeymoon phase with these events,” Lee said, explaining that construction work, by and large, has not yet in full swing in the storm-hit areas. “As the process moves forward — when contractors begin work or are expected to begin work — that’s when I expect to see complaints pick up.”
The new push represents a frontal assault against fraudulent building activity. The MSBOC has regulatory oversight of contractors, while the Attorney General’s Office serves as the law enforcement arm with authority to press charges.
“That’s why we are joining forces with the Board of Contractors to send the message that we are united in our fight against crooked contractors,” said Hood.
A conviction for home repair fraud could result in up to 10 years in prison. In a joint release, the Attorney General’s Office and the MSBOC said they “intend to prosecute, to the fullest extent of the law, anyone caught committing home repair fraud.”
Historically, the building scams have taken many forms, and consumers and officials are reporting much the same this year. For instance, residents in areas of greater Jackson that saw hailstones up to softball size in March report a steady stream of roofers knocking on their door. They are also receiving cold calls from companies who say they have had trucks in their neighborhood and saw that the home needs a new roof.
This activity is not a definitive sign that a contractor is fraudulent, but it is a reason to think twice, Lee said. She added that other activity could be a dead giveaway that the contractor is not legit.
“The other day, we had an elderly woman call,” Lee said. “She had agreed to have her home repaired with a contractor, but before any work even started the contractor wanted $5,000 up front. When the woman refused, he threatened to put a lien on her home.”
The MSBOC advised the woman that, since no work had actually begun, there could be no lien, and that she should have no more dealings with the builder.
“If you have a contractor knocking on your door or calling your home, that’s a red flag,” Lee said. “If a contractor wants money up front, be aware. These are the ways bogus contractors operate.”
A few tips for combating bogus builders are:
» Hire only licensed and bonded contractors. Ask to see the license and verify the bond.
» Use Mississippi contractors if you can.
Verify the contractor’s license by checking online at the MSBOC’s website at www.msboc.us.
» Be wary of supposed contractors who come to your home soliciting business. Most reputable contractors will be busy and won’t need to solicit business.
» Always get more than one estimate. Three bids are recommended.
» Request references and talk with those references.
» Put all your terms in writing. A copy of a “model contract” can be found at the Attorney General Office’s website at www.agjimhood.com.
» As a backup, videotape the discussion with the contractor concerning the terms of the transaction/contract.
“There are a lot of honest contractors out there, but a disaster really brings out the crooks trying to take advantage of those already in a vulnerable position,” said Attorney General Hood.
“Following recent storms, we have had our disaster response teams out pushing information and following up on complaints,” said Lee. “We hope by joining forces with the Attorney General’s Office that we can keep some storm-damaged residents from being victimized by an unscrupulous contractor.”