Hint: it’s all in the contract
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – One of the most common calls WREG problem solvers receive involves contractors who get paid but never complete the job.
A recent arrest caught our attention since law enforcement agencies often don’t hold contractors accountable for charges.
“The majority are being handled civilly,” said Lt. Kevin Johnson of the Memphis Police Department’s Economic Crimes Bureau. “A lot of times what we get is people have a solid civil case, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a criminal case.”
Johnson explained why they’re struggling to enforce a Tennessee state law making “fraud by a home improvement contractor” a criminal charge. The law has only been around for 10 years and the wording is vague. When legislators wrote “no substantial part of the contract work was performed”, they did not define “substantial”.
Bobby Ellis’ arrest in July was an exception, police said. Ellis was paid $35,000 and only worked one day, which cleared his case.
“Fortunately, most of the cases we’ve pursued have been easier to the extent that no work has been done,” Johnson said.
But officials said they have prosecuted only a handful of contractors in the past three years. They hope that could change with public awareness of how the law works.
“Knowing that there is a criminal sanction would certainly help citizens in that fewer people would try to take advantage of people like this,” Johnson said.
According to the police, the key to protecting themselves and helping them file charges if necessary lies in the wording of the contract.
Here’s what they said consumers need to know to protect themselves:
- Contracts must have detailed information on specific work expectations, including a timeline. Prosecutors could use it in court to prove that a “substantial” amount of the planned work was not done.
- Contracts should also include a contractor’s address. The law requires the submission of a written request for reimbursement.
- Wait 90 days call the authorities since the contractor has this time to respond.
If you make these changes, you are giving law enforcement their best chance to help you and make requests for an arrest if necessary.
“If they think they’ve been victimized, they should contact the economic crimes office,” Johnson said.
The MPD Economic Crimes Bureau can be reached at 901-636-3350.
You also have other options, such as filing a complaint with your state’s contractors board or filing a lawsuit.
Police say the prosecution is working, as evidenced by the fact that they have no repeat offenders.
► I have a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or [email protected]
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