Taking Down the Con in Contractor – Small Claims Court and Beyond

We all hate it when we get ripped off. When you realize you’ve been ripped off by a contractor, not only are you out a lot of money you are left with the additional expense of paying someone else to fix the mess they’ve left behind. Word-of-Mouth advertising can be the greatest friend or the deadliest nemesis of any business. Most reputable companies will go out of their way to remedy your dissatisfaction to maintain a reputable standing in your community. But what do you do when you realize you’re the victim of the Con in Contractor and they refuse to even admit fault?

While there are several resources where you can find assistance in preparing a small claims suit, this exposition offers an entirely unique approach. Not only will you gain general knowledge of how to prepare for small claims court you will learn what additional, clever steps you can take to make it difficult for the Contractor to find new victims in the meantime. Finding justice, protecting others, what could be more fun? Let’s get started.

Save Everything

If you haven’t already been doing so, gather up all documents related to the disaster. Original quotes, even hand-written notes or estimates may provide contradictions to the story the con artist will attempt to tell in their defense. Organize Invoices, receipts and any correspondence in chronological order. Print off copies of the checks issued to and cashed by the scam artist and attach them to the appropriate invoice as proof of payment. It is also advisable to print a copy of your bank statement at the time each check was issued and cashed. Proof of your account balance during these transactions will diffuse a favorite defense tactic of many con artists. That is the claim you fired them and are seeking reimbursement because you didn’t have the money to pay them in the first place. This step is strongly recommended if you are holding a check for final payment and they attempt a counter suit.

Take Photos Immediately

As the old saying goes, pictures are worth a thousand words. While you may want to take overall pictures of the project, the distance may not translate the full impact of the botchery. Make sure to capture the debacle in a series of close-up shots that show all of its glorious elements. After all, as that other old saying goes, “The devil is in the details.”

Document Your Initial Complaint and Your Reasons/Terms for Compensation

To prevent the Contractor from using the “I didn’t know” defense, send an official, written complaint to the company (or the individual if they are the sole proprietor). Unless it’s recorded, phone conversations cannot be verified and some states have party permission laws which may make this evidence inadmissible in court. Make a file and keep copies of everything involved in correspondence.

The best method of contact is a Certified Letter. That the recipient is required to sign for receipt, you will have the proof you need that the contractor got your letter. Email is another method. However, make sure you tag the e-mail you send you verification once the email was received and opened. Sending the Email via “CC” will ensure another party is witness to the exchange. Remember, print copies of everything. If you save everything only on your computer and something goes wrong, you will lose your evidence.

Prepare Your Case

If the contractor refuses your efforts to discuss or obtain settlement you will have to start preparing for your small claims suit. The limit for financial compensation in a small claims suit varies by state. NOLO, Law for All provides an excellent one-stop guide to finding out the dollar amount limits in your area. You should also look into local statutes of limitation regarding the amount of time wherein the suit must be filed in your effort to reclaim your losses.

Ralph Warner, CEO and Founder of NOLO composed a magnificent book called, Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court. From writing your demand letter to collecting your money when you win, he takes you through the process step-by step. However, during the days off you will have in the process of taking your case to small claims court, these are the days during which you can set in motion those aforementioned additional, clever steps.

Verify Their Trade and Business License

Con Contractors are a slimy, deceptive breed. Not only are most unlicensed to perform the services they offer their business is not legally registered in the state. Log on to the website of your local business/licensing regulatory agency. Most enable you to verify a license by the name of the contractor and/or their business name. Make sure to check both. If you discover they are not licensed, it opens the field to chuck your first unexpected justice grenade.

File an Unlicensed Activity Complaint

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation in Florida conducts regular Sweeps and Stings in a constant effort to weed out and prosecute con contractors. They also provide victims of cons they’ve missed a little form called an Unlicensed Activity Complaint whereby ordinary citizens can bring these scam artists to the department’s attention. Staffed by both legal professionals and investigators who were formerly employed as licensed contractors, they will prove to be a formidable force. Not only will they be eager to help you in your pursuit of taking down the Con Contractor who dared to taint the reputation of their trade, they will do so with gleeful enthusiasm.

That these regulatory agencies are state entities, their capacity to inflict damage on an unscrupulous business or individual can be devastating both legally and financially. With fines, ranging from hundreds to thousands per infraction, their legal judgments can cripple or shut down a business completely. For contractors who commit serious offenses or are caught repeating past crimes, these agencies have the legal power to halt their work by issue of a Cease and Desist Order. For more egregious offenses these regulators could even have these con artists arrested. Needless to say, evidence of this magnitude could not only give serious support to your individual claim against them but you will also have the capacity to prove their entire business exists and operates outside the law.

Conduct a Background Search

By use of your County Records, search court records for any serious past transgressions of the part of the con contractor. Most scam artists are career criminals so don’t be surprised if you discover that you were not their first casualty. Professional scam artists have a set program. They set up shop in one town, fabricate a website, print business cards and maybe even invest in a few official looking polo shirts with their logo stitched right on the front. The pro-con will then proceed to rip off unsuspecting residents, saturate the area with victims or get caught. Then they pack up, move on to another area and start all over again. Having evidence that you were not the first target of an unscrupulous contractor will bring the power of precedence to your case. The article titled, How to Avoid the Con in Contractor, will provide further insight into recognizing and reporting these professional scam artists to authorities.

Angie’s List

Another weapon at your disposal is a website such as Angie’s List. Where they may not deal specifically with contractor related disputes they do offer you a venue through which to make your predicament known to other potential victims. Angie’s List is one of the more reputable sites through which you can make your story heard. Where other sites simply allow anyone to post just about anything, Angie’s List requires membership and takes the time to verify your complaint before posting for member review and consideration. This adds clout to your protest. Angie’s List may also agree to offer assistance in mediating your case in a effort to seek resolution as an alternative to small claims court.

Angie’s List Complaint Resolution Process

Once your grievance has been verified and posted on the website I advise you take advantage of their Complaint Resolution Process. During this course of action, Angie’s list will contact the provider on your behalf, allow them to respond to your claim and attempt to find resolution. The response from the provider will appear along with your initial complaint on the provider’s profile page. If the provider was unlicensed, Angie’s list will make this information known as well.

Another benefit of using the Complaint Resolution Process of Angie’s List is the response of the contractor itself. In their effort to refute your claim against them the unsuspecting con artist will inadvertently provide you with insight into how they will attempt to defend themselves in court. Compare their response to the Resolution Process to original quotes, invoices and any correspondence you received from your initial demand letter. That con artists are inherently dishonest you will start to find a series of inconsistencies in their repeated versions of the story. This is actually a successful interrogation tool used by detectives and investigators to trip up a suspect during the course of obtaining their statements. When telling a story repeatedly, only lies breed contradiction. Forcing the scam artist to explain the inconsistencies in their story will be very effective and most entertaining as the Judge considers your case and tries to decide who is telling the truth.

Getting ripped off is a sickening, frustrating and an infuriating experience. Most of all you feel helpless. The best way to gain control in any challenging situation is to act rather than react. Although this approach to seek justice might seem a little unorthodox or even vengeful, so be it. As they say, fire must be fought with fire. It is not just necessary to take these con contractors down. It is your duty as a concerned and vigilant citizen to take action and make efforts to protect the other residents of your community. In the end, the element of surprise, shock and awe, the truth and the law will make for an impressive and intimidating arsenal in your battle to take down the con in contractor.

Sources:

“How Much Can I Sue for in Small Claims Court?”, NOLO

Ralf Warner, “Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court”, NOLO

Patricia Campion, “How to Avoid the Con in Contractor”, Yahoo/Associated Content

Department of Business and Professional Regulation “Report Unlicensed Activity or File a Complaint”, myfloridalicense.com

Department of Business and Professional Regulation “Statistics”, myfloridalicense.com

Department of Business and Professional Regulation “Licensee Search”, myfloridalicense.com

Angie’s List