As Tampa Bay residents start to repair homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, officials have a message for homeowners: Don't allow unlicensed contractors to scam you.
The thousands of homes with missing shingles, holes in roofs and broken windows provide opportunities for unlicensed contractors and criminals to land on your doorstep with lofty promises. They will pose as window installers, tree cutters, roofers and offer the essential services that a disaster-struck area might need.
But they all have a deal you can't pass up.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," warned Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "They're there to rip you off."
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis warned that unlicensed contracting is crime.
"As always, citizens should use due diligence when selecting a contractor," Nienhuis said in a statement. "Be cautious of contractors who have estimates that are much less than others."
Construction fraud can cost unwitting homeowners thousands of dollars for work that is never done or left incomplete. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time.
"Reputable contractors will likely have a waiting list," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Liz Jack, who prosecutes unlicensed cases. "Beware of scammers who will knock on your door and tell you a job just fell through and they can give you a good deal."
Contractors who perform home improvement and repair services in Florida must be licensed and insured.
State and county licenses are important because they offer consumers and the public reassurance that the contractor holding that license meets the standard requirements for working in that specific field. Consumers can verify licenses online at myfloridalicense.com.
Residents in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties can report unlicensed contractors to Sheriff's Offices, the counties' consumer protection agencies and building departments.
"There's a lot of big money to made by these guys," Hillsborough County Sheriff's Detective Jose Sanchez told the Tampa Bay Times in June about unlicensed contractors who prey on homeowners.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said residents should promptly notify insurance companies about any claims, adding: "Be careful about repair deals that sound too good to be true."
A July report from the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., an association of nearly 300 nonprofit consumer groups, listed home improvement scams as the second-highest complaint last year, second only to fraud that targets the elderly.
Pinellas County is the only county in Florida with an independent construction licensing board. Contractors who work in the county must be licensed with the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. Homeowners can verify a contractor's license at pcclb.com and download the county's SeeClickFix app to report unlicensed contractors.
The warnings go beyond major home repair.
Homeowners should also exercise caution when workers show up and want to clear yards strewn with trees and branches, Jack said. Don't give them any money until the work is finished, she said.
"Pay them when the job is completed to your satisfaction based upon your agreement," Jack warned. "If they won't agree to do any work without initial payment, choose someone else."
Staff writer Langston Taylor and information from Times files contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.
Tips to help avoid being ripped off
• Only deal with licensed and insured contractors. To check someone's license, visit MyFloridaLicense.com or call (850) 487-1395. To verify valid insurance, ask for their insurance certificate and call the company to confirm.
• Pay after the work is finished or as the work progresses. Be wary of contractors who ask for advance payment in full. Jack says a demand for large sums of money up front is a "big red flag."
• Also, avoid paying cash and be cautious of writing checks made payable to individuals, especially when dealing with a company, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
• Get a written contract that details the work and hold on to proof of payment for the work. In the contract, make sure there is a clause stating the bill cannot fluctuate by more than a certain amount without approval from the homeowner. That will prevent getting a dramatically inflated bill.
• Don't trust contractors who claim that structural repairs or other extensive repairs do not require a permit. The contractor should pull the permit, not the homeowner.
• Require contractors to provide a final affidavit saying all subcontracts and suppliers used on the job have been paid in full.
• Ensure that the contractor has had the work inspected by the county or city building department before final payments are made.