By Tamas Mondovics

The result of a three-month long criminal investigation conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Construction Fraud Unit targeting unlicensed contractors following Hurricane Irma was revealed during a press conference earlier this month.

The Unit was created to proactively investigate issues related to unlicensed contracting in violation of Florida Statute 489 and Hillsborough County Ordinance 15-14.

HCSO Sheriff Chad Chronister emphasized that the results of “Operation Rebuild” and “Operation Swift Wind,” revealed good news and bad news for area residents.

“The good news is that we were able identify and stop a large number of contractors who were unlicensed targeting the most vulnerable,” Chronister said. “But, the investigation also shows that there are a lot of people in the community who want to take advantage of homeowners in their time of need.”
Chronister explained that unlicensed contractors can be appealing to consumers as they can offer services at a lesser cost.

“The unlicensed contractor is not regulated, their work and the materials used may be substandard, they provide no warranty, and the work is done without the required permits and inspections,” he said. “These scenarios can cause costly repairs, code violations, and other liabilities.”

Between June 2017 and August 2017, unit detectives initiated “Operation Rebuild” to identify unlicensed contractors by employing an extended covert investigation.

Partnered with the State Attorney’s Office, Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Florida Department of Financial Services, and the Hillsborough County Building Department, investigations were conducted throughout Hillsborough County.

Detectives gathered information from multiple open sources regularly used by homeowners to contact contractors and “handy man” services including Angie’s List, Home Adviser, Facebook, Craig’s List, and various citizen complaints.

HCSO located and contacted 310 potential unlicensed contractors, 114 of which returned calls for quotes and met with the detectives. Of those, 73 criminal cases were filed for fraud and unlicensed contracting, totaling nearly $2 million.

Therefore, the potential economic impact to Hillsborough County homeowners and legitimate contractors would be in excess of four million dollars.

Detectives also initiated “Operation Swift Wind,” which targeted unlicensed contractors conducting business during a state of emergency, which was declared on September 4, 2017, by Governor Scott in response to the threats posed by Hurricane Irma.

In an abbreviated operation lasting for three days in late October, unit detectives contacted ten potential unlicensed contractors, resulting in five arrests for felony charges.

Chronister urged residents to beware of door to door sales or internet offers for home improvement which seem too good of a deal; contractors who ask for large sums of money up front, especially cash; a contractor who asks you the homeowner to obtain your own building permit or that the work can be done without one, and a contractor who will not show you his contractor’s license and insurance documents upon demand.

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