Sandy Victims Face Contractor Fraud

By Lauren Wanko

At Ocean County Long Term Recovery, about one in 10 clients have become victims of contractor fraud as they rebuild post-Sandy say staffers.

“I think it’s gonna cost many people their chance to recover,” said Ocean County Long Term Recovery Executive Director Susan Marticek.

Statewide, homeowners are filing complaints about contractors. Sixty-eight home improvement contractors have been issued notices of violation by the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs totaling more than $1 million in civil penalties and consumer restitution in amounts ranging from $378 to as much as $185,000 for allegedly failing to complete work consumers paid for in advance, failing to refund deposits and other violations.

“We see people each and every day come to us with exactly that situation,” said Marticek.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing an uptick in individuals who are being taken advantage of by people known to them,” said Ocean County Long Term Recovery Assistant Executive Director Bridget Holmes.

“This is not specifically about Sandy, but we can say that approximately 10 percent of these home improvement contractors have worked on Sandy projects in the past,” said New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Steve Lee.

The Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group is in the process of setting up housing workshops — Construction 101 of sorts — for homeowners. The non-profit also offers those homeowners the opportunity to review their construction contract with disaster case managers here before they sign it.

NJTV News spoke with several people who claim they fell victim to contractor fraud. Due to ongoing investigations, they all declined to be interviewed on camera.

The Division of Consumer Affairs received more than 1,430 consumer complaints about home improvement contractors last year, the largest consumer complaint category in 2013. All contractors must obtain a registration from the Division of Consumer Affairs, which indicates the contractor has a legitimate street address and at least $500,000 in liability insurance.

“All contracts for home improvement projects costing $500 or more must be in writing and those contracts must include the legal name, business address and registration number of the contractor as well as a start date, completion date, description of work to be done and total price,” Lee said.

The Division of Consumer Affairs recommends various tips for consumers when hiring a contractor. Some include: learn about any contractor before hiring them and ask for references; check with Consumer Affairs to find out if the contractor is registered to perform home improvement work in the Garden State and whether they’ve received any complaints; before hiring the contractor, demand a copy of the contractor’s liability insurance policy and check with the insurer that the policy is valid; and get all estimates, contracts and agreements in writing.