The California Contractors State License Board will be out in force today in an effort to prevent phony contractors from scamming victims of the Jesusita Fire.
According to the CSLB, victims of disasters are especially vulnerable to fraudulent housing and construction contractors. Phony contractors often solicit damaged neighborhoods after disasters, rushing people whose homes are in need of repair into signing dangerous work contracts. In order to prevent these incidents, the CSLB will coordinate with local law enforcement agencies to put up warning signs, speak with residents and conduct sting operations to expose deceptive contractors.
According to Rick Lopes of the CSLB, the board canvasses disaster areas in order to prevent the exploitation of victimized homeowners. With as many as 80 homes destroyed and 15 damaged by the Jesusita Fire, the CSLB fears Santa Barbara residents are at risk of falling prey to phony contractors.
“The first thing that we do after a disaster is we go through and we do a big educational campaign,” Lopes said. “Starting [Tuesday], we’re actually going to have people walking through the neighborhoods posting warning signs in the area.”
Any builders or repairmen who work or agree to work without a valid California license are considered “fraudulent contractors.” Performing contracting work without a valid California contractor’s license in a disaster area is a felony offense.
State laws also require that general contractors maintain liability insurance and bonds to guarantee the completion of work contracts.
According to Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, fraudulent contracting can put homeowners at risk in several different ways. Unlicensed contractors often ask for a large sum of money up front with no intention of beginning or completing the work.
“[We] see people who take a large sum of money up front, maybe do a little bit of work, and then walk away,” Lulejian said. “If someone is asking for more than 10 percent [of payment up front], you need to let them out the front door and slam the door behind them.”
It is illegal for contractors to demand more than 10 percent of payment before work begins, and without a California license, phony contractors can be difficult to recover money from.
In addition to abandoning work after contracts are signed, unlicensed contractors usually do not have proper workmen’s compensation insurance. Without this insurance, Lulejian said the employees of contractors can sue homeowners if they are injured while on job sites.
“If [a contractor’s employee] falls off your roof and breaks their back, you probably won’t have your home anymore,” Lulejian said. “If the person is not licensed, and they were working at your house at your request, you are now responsible for them.”
The CSLB currently licenses roughly 315,000 contractors. Of these, only 3 percent receive complaints from consumers each year.
While statistics show that bad contracting work is not a universal problem, Santa Barbara Police Dept. Detective Eric Beecher said he believes phony contracting crimes often go unreported.
“I don’t know how often it gets reported,” he said. “Probably not very often. People that hire contractors illegally tend not to get involved … they don’t want to contact police because they know they shouldn’t have been dealing with them in the first place.”
In addition to warning homeowners against fraud, the CSLB will begin conducting sting operations to catch phony contractors. CSLB officials took similar steps in the aftermath of the Tea Fire, which resulted in the arrest of several fraudulent contractors last February.