What is Contractor Fraud?

Contractor fraud refers to illegal business practices committed by individual contractors or contracting firms hired to renovate, repair or (re)build residential properties. Contractor fraud in the residential sector may also be referred to as "home improvement scams." Contractor fraud encompasses a range of issues, from shoddy work and using substandard materials to escalating project costs and over-billing. Contractor fraud often ends up costing the victim twice because apart from losing a significant amount to the fraudster - whose inferior work may cause damage to previously undamaged parts of a home - a legitimate firm may also have to be paid to bring the work up to standard or repair the damage. A victim of contractor fraud is often pressured into paying for the work through threats and intimidation.

Key Takeaways

  • Contractor fraud refers to illegal business practices committed by individual contractors or contracting firms hired to renovate, repair or (re)build residential properties.
  • Common contractor frauds include - asking for a substantial upfront cash advance; leaving out key project details / low-ball offers; purportedly running into unexpected problems that require additional cash; not obtaining required permits; and selling materials supposedly left over from previous jobs.
  • Tips to consider before hiring a contractor include: researching contractors, checking references, obtaining multiple quotes, developing a comprehensive written contract, verifying licenses and insurance, confirming building permits, checking warranty coverage, arranging a payment schedule, and getting a payment receipt.

Understanding Contractor Fraud

Common techniques of contractor fraud include the following:

Substantial upfront cash advance: This is one of the most prevalent contractor frauds. The contractor demands a significant upfront advance to order materials and equipment, and then either disappears with the full amount, delays the project by lengthy periods, or does slipshod work that is not worth the thousands of dollars that the homeowner may have already forked over.

Leaving out key project details/low-ball offers: Contractors can also defraud homeowners by deliberately leaving out key details of the project's scope, so that the homeowner is actually getting much less than what he or she is paying for. Completing the rest of the project can end up with the total cost going well beyond the homeowner's initial budget. This category also includes low-ball offers wherein the contractor intentionally quotes a price that is well below the going rate for similar work, and then tacks on additional prices that may result in the final cost being much greater than the initial estimate.

Running into unexpected problems that require additional cash: Another common ruse, this involves the contractor purportedly running into unforeseen, major problems - such as hidden water or termite damage - once the job is already underway. The contractor then demands a large payment to "fix" the problem, leaving the hapless homeowner with little choice but to pay up in order the keep the project on track.

Not obtaining the required permits: Any significant construction or renovation project requires a building permit to ensure that the work meets safety codes. Unscrupulous contractors may get past this requirement, so that they don't have to answer to building inspectors, by either not obtaining the requisite permits or persuading the homeowner to apply for the permit in his or her name.

Selling materials "left over" from previous jobs: This is a ruse perpetrated by a contractor who promises the homeowner a great deal for an ad hoc project such as paving a driveway or painting a house exterior because of materials left over from a previous job.

Organizations like the Better Business Bureau have made it harder for these fraudsters to prey on informed consumers, but some fraudulent contractors continue to target vulnerable groups such as the elderly by going door to door.

Signs of Contractor Fraud

How can you identify a potentially fraudulent contractor? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) highlights the following warning signs of a home improvement scam or contractor fraud:

  • Knocks on your door for business or offers you discounts for finding other customers;
  • Happens to have materials left over from a previous job
  • Pressures you for an immediate decision
  • Only accepts cash, asks you to pay everything upfront, or suggests you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows
  • Asks you to get the required building permits
  • Tells you your job will be a "demonstration" or offers a lifetime warranty or long-term guarantee
  • Does not list a business number in the local telephone directory

How to Avoid Contractor Fraud

Renovating, remodeling and maintaining a home can be complicated. Hiring qualified professionals who can do the work for a fair price and in a timely manner can make it a much easier process. While there are fraudulent contractors who will do a poor job, or never even show up, taking a few precautions and conducting basic due diligence can minimize the risk of contractor fraud. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) suggests the following tips to consider when hiring anybody to work in your home:

  1. Research and gather information: You can search for a contractor's business profile on the Better Business Bureau website to get free information on the contractor's history of complaints and customer reviews, and check if the contractor is an BBB Accredited Business.
  2. Ask for references: Ask the contractor for a list of local references that you can contact.
  3. Ask for multiple quotes: Shop around and get at least three quotes from different contractors, based on the same set of criteria.
  4. Get it in writing: Always get estimates in writing and ensure that any work never begins without a comprehensive written and signed contract.The contract should include contact information, start and completed dates, detailed and accurate description of the work to be done, material costs, payment arrangements and warranty information; all verbal promises by the contractor should also be included in the contract.
  5. Verify licenses and insurance: Verify that the contractor has the necessary licenses and insurance to work in your area, and check with the contractor's insurance carrier to confirm coverage for worker's compensation, property damage, and personal liability in the event of an accident.
  6. Confirm building permits: The contractor must obtain the correct permits - generally at your cost - before commencing the project. Include a clause that final inspections should be completed by local building authorities before you make the final payment.
  7. Find out about a lien waiver: In the United States, this is a statement from your contractor that says all suppliers and subcontractors have been paid for their work.
  8. Think about future service issues: Ensure you are aware of your warranty coverage and how to deal with service issues in the future.
  9. Arrange a payment schedule: Never make full payment upfront, but stagger the payments so that the final installment is not due until the work is complete and has been fully inspected.
  10. Get a receipt: Obtain a receipt from the contractor marked "Paid in Full" once the job is completed and you have made final payment.

Some U.S. states such as Florida, Maryland and Virginia have special recovery funds that can be used to reimburse customers who have either been defrauded by licensed contractors, or whose contractor has abandoned a job or performed work not up to code.