Montgomery County sees ‘overwhelming’ amount of home improvement scams

Montgomery County, Maryland, is sounding the alarm for homeowners, as the county and state see an avalanche of reports of home improvement scams.

“It’s just overwhelming how many complaints we are receiving,” said Eric Friedman, director of Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection.

Friedman said the scams don’t involve small projects, such as getting ripped off after ordering a new fence or window. Rather, they are usually big projects that cost a lot of money.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars that consumers are paying upfront for all different kinds of home improvement work,” Friedman said.

In many of these cases, so-called contractors show up to a person’s home and offer to do projects for them. They will say they have leftover materials from another project they are doing nearby and offer a deal to work on your home.

Friedman said there are also those called “woodchucks” — people who get you to hire them to trim trees, and then while cutting tree limbs, they will tell you there is something wrong with your roof and that they can help you fix the issue.

Another common type of scammer is known as a “traveler.” In these cases, a person shows up, convinces a homeowner to pay a down payment for a project then disappears.

Friedman said the first rule is to never hire someone who isn’t licensed, and always do your homework on a contractor you are considering hiring.

Montgomery County is also working on a case in which a contractor took more than $1 million from several consumers, then filed for bankruptcy and left the homeowners high and dry.

Friedman said there are ways to lessen the risk of being taken in by unscrupulous contractors.

“What we say is ‘do vetting, not betting,'” Friedman said. “Don’t just bet that you think the contractor is going to be good.”

Friedman recommended doing an online search and verifying through the county, state or even sites such as that a contractor is licensed and insured.

“You should never do business with an unlicensed contractor, it’s just not safe,” Friedman said.

Montgomery County’s consumer protection website lets you see complaints against companies and contractors, as well as any resolution that came from complaints.

Also, if a contractor asks you to pull permits for them, find another contractor, Friedman added.

“If there’s a violation, you don’t want the county government to issue the violation to the homeowner, you want them to issue it to the actual contractor,” he said.

When doing your research, make sure the contractor has a physical address that you can verify.

Once you choose a contractor, get everything in writing. Friedman said a contract should stipulate what kind of materials the contractor will use, how much time it’s going to take for them to complete the job and what kind of warranty you will receive for the project.

And if you’re asked not to use credit cards, and to use cash apps for payment instead, Friedman said that’s a bad idea because the limited information some of those apps provide can result in a dead end for investigators.

“It’s difficult to track them down, if not impossible,” Friedman said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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