Maryland warns about unlicensed tree crews

WASHINGTON — If there’s a knock on the door and someone offers to trim the trees but need upfront payment — you’ve just been targeted by a “woodchuck.”

That’s the name Montgomery County officials give to unlicensed tree crews targeting the region. Marian Honeczy, supervisor of Urban and Community Forestry with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, says there are several reasons Montgomery County is targeted: the heavy tree canopy and an aging population.

Honeczy says of the unscrupulous tree crews, “They seem to find those that have dementia or Alzheimer’s, and they target these people”

In one case, a crew convinced one Maryland woman it was licensed and qualified. And then the job went bad — fast. As they were felling the tree, it landed on the woman’s house.

“The crew doing the work immediately jumped in their truck and left. And left the tree in her house and all the equipment on her front lawn.”

Compounding the situation: the woman had paid the team up front for the work.

Two signs you’re dealing with “woodchucks”:

  • People who demand money up front. They may ask for a check, or they may offer to run your credit card or debit card using an iPad fitted with a credit card reader.
  • People who tell you that they need you to pay for the equipment they’ll need to do the job. This sounds unbeilievable, but Honeczy says it’s not uncommon, especially when elderly customers, or senior citizens, are targeted. “They’ll ask the senior to get in the truck with them and go to Home Depot to buy them a chainsaw.”

Honeczy says the problem is customers don’t realize if they don’t hire a qualified, licensed and insured tree crew, the homeowner is liable for any damages or injuries.

Headaches and a mess can be avoided by making sure the right person is hired for the job. A business license is not a sign that the crews are qualified. In Maryland, tree crews have to pass exams to become qualified and get licensed as tree experts.

Honeczy says many people are reluctant to pursue complaints. She explains there’s an embarrassment factor. To get around that, she advises filing a complaint online.

“You do not need to call anyone, you don’t need to call me and tell me what happened.”

Instead, victims can go to straight to the website and fill out the form.

After filling on the form and sending, it hits Honeczy’s desk, and she goes to work.

Honeczy works with local police departments and consumer protection offices throughout the state and says she’ll juggle as many as 80 cases in a season.

Information about Maryland tree experts can be found, here.

The complaint form is midway down the page.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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