State Contractors Board Targets Illegal Contractors Trying To Take Advantage of Napa Flood Victims
Early efforts to warn homeowners seen as beneficial to helping reduce threat
NAPA — This week is one of the busiest enforcement periods on record for the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). No less than five undercover sting and sweep operations have been taking place around the state this week. The CSLB is taking the occasion of National Consumer Protection Week (February 5-11) to remind homeowners that unlicensed operators are a very real threat.
One of the stings was held yesterday in a Napa home damaged by recent heavy rains and flooding from the Napa River. Last week, Napa was one of the counties declared a federal disaster area as a result of the flooding. Contracting without a license in a declared disaster area can be a felony and holds serious penalties for those who are caught. The CSLB's Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) partnered with the Napa Police Department to target suspected unlicensed contractors trying to make homeowners a victim for the second time. By law, all contractors who perform work that totals $500 or more (labor and materials) must be licensed by the CSLB. In addition, before getting a license, all applicants must undergo a criminal background check by the Department of Justice.
In yesterday's undercover sting, SWIFT members posed as homeowners and invited suspects to the 121 year-old Victorian home to bid on various flood repairs. More than one dozen people showed up to give bids. Of those, seven were arrested and released after signing a Notice to Appear (NTA) in Napa County Superior Court to answer misdemeanor charges. The charges carry a maximum of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine for the first offense. A second violation carries a mandatory 90-day jail sentence. Three others were given civil citations.
The relative low number of arrests is seen as a positive sign for homeowners and licensed contractors who are able to legally make flood repairs. "Within hours after the flood hit, we had CSLB staff there giving victims information on how to protect themselves from unscrupulous contractors who would want to take advantage of their situation," said CSLB Registrar Steve Sands. "That quick work also put scam artists on notice that we're serious about going after them."
Yesterday's sting coincides with the opening of a Local Assistance Center to aid Napa County Flood Victims. The CSLB is one of the state and federal agencies making staff and educational information available at the center, located at 2261 Elm Street, Bldg. K in Napa.
The CSLB has an information hotline set up for flood victims only. The lines are open Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm at 1-800-962-1125.
"Many homeowners, even outside the flood zone, don't realize that unlicensed operators rarely, if ever, carry workers' compensation insurance on their employees," adds Sands. "If one of them gets hurt on their property the homeowner could be liable. Plus, if a homeowner has problems with the unlicensed operator, they have very few options to go after them."
Before hiring any contractor, all homeowners should go online or call CSLB's automated phone system to verify that he/she holds a valid license. They can also check out the contractor's license history and get bond and personnel information. The CSLB urges consumers to follow these tips when dealing with a building contractor:
- Hire only licensed contractors and ask to see the license;
- Don't rush into decisions and don't hire the first contractor who comes along;
- Be especially hesitant when approached by someone offering home improvement services door-to-door, especially when they will use material they claim is left over from another job;
- Verify the contractor's license by checking online or via CSLB's automated phone service at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752)
- Don't pay more than 10% down or $1,000, whichever is less;
- Don't pay cash, and don't let the payments get ahead of the work; and
- Get three bids, check references, and a written contract
The Contractors State License Board operates under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The CSLB licenses and regulates California's 297,000 contractors, and investigates more than 20,000 complaints against contractors annually. In fiscal year 2004-05, the CSLB helped consumers get more than $36 million in restitution.
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