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Criminal contractors: An alert for homeowners

May 15, 2013 8:39:02 PM PDT
Action News is sounding an alarm for anyone looking for a home improvement contractor.

I've often told you if you're hiring a contractor make sure he or she is registered with the state, get referrals, and check reviews online.

A popular website we looked into promises to do rigorous criminal and financial background checks but much to my disappointment, neither that website nor the state are nearly as useful as you might think.

Matt Brown is on a mission to get his 86-year-old mom a big refund.

"How can you come into someone's house and literally steal $15,000 from them?" Matt Brown said.

Brown's referring to William Whitmore, Sr., the man who agreed to have a new roof put on Brown's mom's home.

The Langs of Roxborough tell Action News their roof leaked more after they dealt with Whitmore.

"Which was the really hard thing to tolerate with a newborn at home," Charna Lang said.

"I feel hoodwinked, bamboozled, and very upset," Brandon Lang said.

Eleanor Kearns, Bill and Carla Holloway and Stephan Benzekri have similar stories.

"It's beyond incompetence; it's someone who doesn't know how to do a roof," Benzekri said.

On Wednesday evening, Whitmore called to claim he doesn't own the roofing companies in question. He says his sons own them and he himself does not do roof work anymore.

But earlier, he did claim responsibility when I confronted him.

Me: What are you going to do for these people?

William Whitmore: Try and take care of it.

Me: Are you going to give them their money back?

Whitmore: Yes, we are.

Me: You're going to give all these people their money back?

Whitmore: Yes.

Me: We have your word that you're going to give them their money back?

Whitmore: Yes you do.

But all customers we spoke with are still waiting for refunds. Although in court today, Whitmore promised yet again to give the Browns their money back.

"And I'm hoping that the criminal complaints that these consumers filed are honored and that this roofer is prosecuted not because he did a bad job but because, in my opinion, he stole from people," Philadelphia Consumers Affairs Director Lance Haver said.

And these consumers aren't just mad at Whitmore. Perhaps even more alarming, they're mad at the company that put them in Whitmore's hands.

Home Advisor, formerly known as Service Magic, claims to give its own seal of approval and do rigorous criminal and financial background checks.

Eleanor Kearns says she used the website because she thought it would do her homework for her.

"Well, it said everyone was screened and researched and approved," consumer Carla Holloway of Upper Darby, Pa. said.

But William Whitmore is a criminal.

"This guy's a thief. Bottom line, he's a con artist," consumer Brian Barrett of Bristol, Pa. said.

Barrett says he paid Whitmore to fix his roof but Whitmore never finished the job.

Whitmore was court-ordered to give him a refund in 2011 and that's when Whitmore also pleaded guilty to writing bad checks.

Terri Macauley says a different contractor she found on Service Magic ripped her off to the tune of $53,000.

And that contractor's also a criminal and has been ordered by the state to pay back other customers.

"They're failing miserably at what they claim they're doing," consumer Terri Macauley of Allentown, Pa. said.

The company says the criminal screening for Terri's contractor, "which is conducted by a third party, did not show any convictions... Whitmore provided a relative's name and social security number... We recognize...bad contractors can find ways to circumvent our screening procedures, and we are continually improving our system to prevent this..."

And the company's terms and conditions say it checks for convictions and civil judgments only in the three years prior to registration. There's another database that isn't as reliable as you might think: the Pennsylvania Attorney General's contractor registration database.

"Anybody can register; it's just a matter of disclosing the information," Sarah Frasch of the Pennsylvania Attorney's General Office said.

But a contractor is required to be properly insured.

Whitmore's insurance company says it canceled his insurance back in 2011 for nonpayment.

"We definitely mention on our website we're not endorsing anything about the home improvement quality or of their work," Frasch said.

Try telling that to all those angry customers.

Now, we checked the Attorney General's website after our interview and it appears the Whitmore companies have now been de-activated.

Home Advisor says both service professionals were removed from its network.

So how should you check for a contractor?

Get referrals from people you know and trust.

Search online for criminal convictions and civil judgments as well as negative reviews.

One more thing, the Attorney General's office tells me it has a new unit that is now spot checking registration information for validity.

LINKS:

Search for criminal cases against PA contractors:

http://ujsportal.pacourts.us/DocketSheets/CP.aspx

http://ujsportal.pacourts.us/DocketSheets/MDJ.aspx

To find out about civil cases, call the district judge for your area:

http://www.pacourts.us/courts/minor-courts/magisterial-district-judges/


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