ST. GEORGE — An eight-state sting effort in June caught nearly 700 individuals engaging in fraudulent contractor activity, 45 of them in Utah.
National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies coordinated the two-week-long effort, which included participating agencies from Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah and Washington.
Arrests, administrative citations and legal prosecution were among the actions levied against the individuals found in violation of state regulations in an effort to even the playing field for legitimate contractors and warn consumers of the risks of working with individuals out of compliance.
The Utah bust resulted in approximately $23,000 worth of fines, and of the 45 individuals nabbed in Utah, five were operating in Southern Utah.
Investigators from the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing used Craigslist, online classifieds, field checks and proactive investigations to snare the individuals. Investigators contacted the companies and individuals to request bids for business projects using a decoy commercial building as bait.
“This particular effort focused on unlicensed practice. While there are many violations that we could have looked at, this one focused on those who were holding themselves out to be licensed but were not,” Mark Steinagel, director of Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, said in an interview with St. George News.
Besides fines, the individuals also received education on the process of obtaining licensure.
“The concept is, if somebody puts forth the effort to become licensed, which involves a number of things,” Steinagel said, “then the likelihood of them being legitimate is significantly higher.”
However, he said, if they are found to continue to operate without a license, the division will likely meet with prosecutors or law enforcement to seek criminal charges.
“We can’t guarantee everybody with a license is always going to do everything you’re happy about, but the vast majority of the complaints we get where somebody’s been defrauded are with somebody who doesn’t have a license.”
Such individuals in Utah are frequently found to be operating in especially hot areas targeting the elderly and millennials.
Steinagel explained that legitimate contractors are less likely to work in periods of extreme heat, sometimes leading consumers to seek unlicensed individuals.
“They know when people are under pressure, they often let their guard down,” Steinagel said.
Additionally, rural populations are frequently targeted by what the division refers to as “travelers” who go from state to state into different areas for just a few days performing high pressure sales tactics and then abandon jobs, leaving before they get into trouble with local authorities.
Younger populations who are used to doing business online are also often targeted by unlicensed individuals, Steinagel said, using fraudulent online advertisements on platforms like Craigslist.
Choosing a licensed contractor
“We start our efforts of trying to protect the public by trying to get the public to use somebody who’s qualified for a license because it’s much more likely they’re going to be in good shape,” Steinegal said.
The Utah Department of Commerce’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing offers the following tips on steps to take when seeking a bid for contracting work in order to prevent contractor fraud:
- Verify the contractor or business is actively licensed with the state of Utah at dopl.utah.gov.
- Always hire a licensed contractor so you have the ability to file a complaint if something goes wrong in the business transaction.
- Request three written estimates to compare.
- Check at least three references with former customers.
- Check with materials suppliers on which contractors and companies they recommend.
- Require a written contract to protect yourself and your property against liens.
- Don’t make a large down payment; pay as work is completed.
- Monitor the job in progress.
- Don’t make the final payment until the job is complete per the terms of your contract.
- Keep copies of all paperwork related to your job.
The division has 30 investigators overseeing about 60 different types of professions in Utah. Five people in St. George staff the division’s Southern Utah office at 1067 East Tabernacle St. Suite 9.
For more information on how to file a complaint, verify the license of a professional or check on whether a licensee has faced disciplinary action, go to www.dopl.utah.gov.
- Utah Division of Consumer Protection website.
- National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies website.
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