"Statewide Sandy Fraud Working Group" Announces Criminal and Civil Actions Against Unregistered Home Improvement Contractors, Following Investigation Using Storm-Damaged House in Monmouth County
NEWARK - Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman today announced that eight unregistered home improvement contractors who came to a Monmouth County home damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and submitted estimates to undercover investigators to perform repairs, have been criminally charged or civilly cited for allegedly violating the State's Home Improvement Contractors' Registration Act.
The State Division of Criminal Justice and the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office have charged four contractors with the 4th degree crime of engaging in home improvement contracting without being registered. The State Division of Consumer Affairs previously issued Notices of Violation against four additional unregistered home improvement contractors.
The joint criminal and civil investigation, carried out by the Statewide Sandy Fraud Working Group within the Attorney General's Office, illustrates the proactive measures being taken by Governor Chris Christie's administration to protect the victims of Superstorm Sandy from further harm during the ongoing recovery process.
"We're putting every schemer and fraudster on notice – do not attempt to enrich yourself by victimizing those who already have suffered from Superstorm Sandy and are attempting to rebuild their lives," Acting Attorney General Hoffman said. "Either operate legally or we will hold you accountable."
Undercover investigators identified home improvement contractors via internet listings, and after checking each for annual registration with the Division of Consumer Affairs, scheduled individual appointments with suspected unregistered contractors. A severely-damaged house on Second Street in Highlands, N.J. was made available for this investigation, with the investigators posing as the homeowners or their relatives. The Monmouth County Office of Consumer Affairs participated in this effort.
"These so-called contractors offered wildly varying assessments of the damage to the home and cost estimates for rebuilding. Consumers depend on the skill and expertise of legitimate contractors and this investigation shows the pitfalls that vulnerable homeowners face when trying to rebuild," said Eric T. Kanefsky, Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs. "Earlier this year, we assigned investigators to Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic counties, specifically checking job sites for unregistered home improvement contractors, and we're continuing our proactive efforts to protect homeowners."
The unregistered contractors who were criminally charged are as follows:
- Rev. Victor McGookin III, 53, Seaside Park, N.J.
- Michael Kaufmann, 48, Kaufmann Drywall By Design, Philadelphia, Pa.
- Jason Storey, 46, Work-A-Holics, LLC, South Orange, N.J.
- Anthony DiVito, 61, DiVito & Sons, LLC, Fanwood, N.J.
"We will not tolerate home improvement contractors who skirt New Jersey's registration requirement, because we cannot allow dishonest operators to fly under the radar and victimize those who are struggling to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy," said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. "Contractors who operate without registering are subject to criminal prosecution, and we've demonstrated our resolve to pursue these individuals aggressively."
"Unscrupulous contractors were forewarned their behavior would not be tolerated. Thanks to the hard work and cooperation of our Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force, we are rooting out anyone looking to inflict more anguish on our residents – that will never be a welcome part of our rebuilding process in Monmouth County. Thankfully, not all contractors behave this way, but residents always must be informed and proactive before choosing who will be their partner in this rebuilding process," said Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.
The Division of Consumer Affairs has issued Notices of Violation for unregistered practice of home improvement to the following:
- Darrell Sorger, 43, Toms River, N.J.
- Robert Mazzeo, 33, Mazzeo Construction, Keyport, N.J.
- Derrick Scott, 54, Lloyd Home Improvement, Matawan, N.J.
- Sebastiao Bonato, 54, Sebastian Restoration and Design (d/b/a/ Step Home Restorations), Long Branch, N.J.
The Notices of Violation carry civil penalties of $2,500.
"Thanks to the partnership of our State and County consumer affairs and law enforcement resources, we are ensuring that residents have reputable and registered contractors to help them put their homes and lives back together," Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian G. Burry said. "This is a further reminder to anyone experiencing difficulty with contractors, or other recovery Sandy issues, that the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Sandy Fraud Task Force also is ready and willing to assist them."
The state Contractors' Registration Act, in effect since 2006, requires annual registration of those who perform home improvements. Among the requirements for annual registration is submission of proof that the applicant has a minimum of $500,000 in commercial general liability insurance coverage.
There are currently about 47,000 registered home improvement contractors in New Jersey. Before hiring a home improvement contractor, the Division advises consumers to determine whether the contractor is registered, whether the contractor has been the subject of consumer complaints and whether Consumer Affairs has taken any action against the contractor. The Division also strongly encourages consumers to get professional references from others who have used the contractor to perform similar work.
Consumers also can access the Division's online database to check whether a home improvement contractor is registered. Apple device users may check the database via an app that is free for download at New Jersey Professional License Lookup App. Consumers also can call the Division toll-free at 800-242-5846 and inquire about the contractor.
A Consumer Brief issued by the Division provides additional information about hiring a home improvement contractor.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
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