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Aged are targets for home improvement swindles

April 21, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Hagerstown resident Rose Shifflett thought she was doing a good thing last month when she had someone fix a supposed problem with her roof before her son got home from work.

Her thoughtfulness, mixed with trust and worry instilled by a seemingly concerned roofing crew, cost her $3,000, according to police.

"They seemed like real nice guys. They were clean-cut people," said Shifflett, 87, who agreed to have the men nail down a few loose shingles they told her they noticed as they passed the house.

By what police believe was trickery, the roofers convinced Shifflett she had a leak that needed to be fixed immediately or could cause severe damage to her home.

The roofers said the $3,000 price reflected a senior citizen discount off the regular price of $4,200, said Shifflett, who asked the men for a ride to the bank after she realized she didn't have enough money in her checking account.

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She said she paid them in cash from her savings account and didn't get a receipt.

Shifflett's case is typical of those of thousands of home improvement scam victims Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia authorities hear from each year, say police and consumer protection officials.

Such reports generally increase in the spring, when people are repairing weather-related damage from the winter or just sprucing up their property, they say. Two popular springtime schemes are roof repair and blacktop work.

Elderly people and single women are disproportionately targeted, they say.

Contractors often use intimidation tactics, like starting work without authorization then demanding payment, officials said. But many times, they take advantage of trusting natures or inexperience in dealing with home repair problems.

"Older people are prime prey," said Marco Merrick, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Elderly victims file a high percentage of the roughly 3,000 complaints the Maryland Home Improvement Commission receives each year, Merrick said.

Home improvement ripoffs rank third in overall complaints to Pennsylvania's Bureau of Consumer Protection but top the list of complaints from senior citizens, said Barbara Petito, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher.

That's why Fisher asked for additional penalties in cases involving victims age 60 and older in his proposed legislation to regulate home improvement contractors, Petito said.

Often, the victims are widows whose husbands made decisions regarding repair and improvement work and, lacking knowledge about such things, trust the contractors, she said.

Offers to do big jobs for a low price - often attributed to a "senior citizen discount" - can be appealing to someone on a fixed income, Petito said.

Many times, people don't know what to ask for when contracting out work or don't understand their rights regarding contracts and up-front payment, she said.

Judging by the roughly 30,000 written complaints and triple that number of phone calls the Bureau of Consumer Protection received last year, the problem is rampant, Petito said.

"We're having to get some stricter regulation on these folks fairly quickly," she said.

The new law would require home improvement contractors doing business in Pennsylvania to register with the state and to use their registration number on contracts and in advertising, she said.

The registration fee would go into a fund to compensate victims of deception and shoddy or incomplete work up to $10,000, Petito said. Those who break the law could be slapped with both civil and criminal penalties.

Maryland and West Virginia already regulate home improvement contractors.

Maryland consumers have the same $10,000 "safety net" proposed in Pennsylvania as long as they deal with state-licensed home improvement contractors, Merrick said.

It's illegal for a contractor to operate in the state without a license, he said.

It's the responsibility of consumers to make sure they're dealing with licensed contractors by asking for a license number and then verifying it with the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, which can also supply a complaint record, Merrick said.

West Virginia requires home improvement contractors to be licensed and to follow explicit regulations, including providing a written contract in "plain language," according to West Virginia Deputy Attorney General Jill Miles.

The state law specifically prohibits contractors from telling prospective customers they can get a discount price due to "materials leftover from a nearby job" when it isn't true.

The transient nature of home improvement scam artists makes them difficult to prosecute, said Maryland State Trooper 1st Class Russ A. Plante, who investigated the Shifflett case.

Consumers should be wary of contractors soliciting jobs, especially when they pressure them to act right away, Plante said.

Legitimate contractors won't mind giving you time to check their credentials and references, he said.

Don't let solicitors into your home under any circumstances, warns West Virginia State Trooper A.M. Zaltzman.

If someone starts doing work without your authorization or you feel intimidated, call the state police, Zaltzman said.

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