Reporting from Washington—The arrest recently of a group of "woodchucks" by Fairfax County, Va., police is just one example of why homeowners nationwide should use caution when hiring people to do odd jobs around their properties.
Woodchucks are so named in this part of the country because they scour neighborhoods offering tree and lawn services. Also known as gypsy contractors, they often charge outrageously high fees to do the work, if they do any work at all.
Although the woman in this case probably will never see her money again, at least the authorities were able to apprehend the suspects. Usually, by the time anyone is the wiser, bogus contractors have moved on to fleece another mark in the next town.
Spurious contractors often prey on the elderly. In Omaha, for example, an outfit working out of a pickup truck and going door to door this year conned an 85-year-old woman out of more than $20,000 before she called the Nebraska Better Business Bureau.
The bureau sent a technical advisor to evaluate the work and found the value of it to be only $300. And that value would have applied only "if it had been done properly, but it had not," bureau President James Hegarty said.
The easiest way to keep from being taken is to follow some cardinal rules for hiring a contractor. First and foremost, never hire someone whose "office" is the cab of a truck and who knocks on your door without being invited. "Never let anyone you don't know into your home," Hegarty warned.
Rule No 2: Beware the sweet talk. "Door-to-door con artists are usually charming and friendly," the Nebraska consumer watchdog said. "They are successful because they appear so trusting. For this reason, we encourage consumers to do their homework before contracting with any business."
Never be rushed into making a decision, obtain estimates in writing, check references, find out whether any complaints have been made against the people you are considering and verify that the contractor has the necessary licenses and is bonded and insured.
In California, contractors cannot ask for deposits of more than 10% of the total cost of the job or $1,000 -- whichever is less -- unless the contractor has a special bond. Any contractor working a job worth $500 or more must be licensed in California. Ask to see a contractor's "pocket license" and check the number with the Contractors State License Board at www.cslb.ca.gov, or call (800) 321-2752.
Another way to protect yourself is to be aware of common bogus ploys designed to separate you from your money.
One ruse that was popular a few years ago played on owners' fears that their homes might be contaminated by carcinogenic radon gas. Shysters would knock on doors offering a free test. Then they would collect a scoop of air using a jug or jar and take the sample back to their trucks to run some tests.
Of course, the results were positive. Then they would ask for thousands of dollars to rectify a problem that didn't exist by digging up a floor or making some other unnecessary or useless repair.
In a similar vein, eight bogus chimney-cleaning companies were prosecuted a few years back by Suffolk County, N.Y., authorities for using scare tactics concerning nonexistent carbon monoxide leaks. They were nabbed when the county Office of Consumer Affairs set up a sting house.
Whatever the ploy, the owner is so thankful the situation has been uncovered -- or so worried that it must be fixed right away -- that he hires the phony contractor on the spot.
You would think folks would be a little more suspicious, but these rogues "have a way with people," said Kay Robinson, president of the Better Business Bureau of Central East Texas. "We make ourselves willing victims."
To avoid these and other tricks:
* Beware of door-to-door salesmen who approach you first. Most legitimate contractors have enough work from recommendations and advertising that they don't need to bang on doors.
* Be careful if you can't get a straight answer to your question or fail to get an answer at all. Ditto if the contractor won't accept a check or wants the check made out to him instead of his company.