Scammed by a contractor? You’re not alone. Why home improvement fraud is so hard to prove

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that most home improvement fraud complaints are neither criminal nor civil violations. Due to inaccurate data provided by the Department of Justice, a graphic was also corrected for home improvement fraud arrests in 2018. There were 66.

After North Wilmington homeowner Polina Snitkovsky’s kitchen floors were replaced in May last year, remodeling was slated to begin on the bathrooms of her Lancashire Drive home − but the initial contractor kept rescheduling.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Snitkovsky asked the contractor who replaced his kitchen floors to continue the work, especially when he promised a better deal and finished product.

Referred by a coworker, this contractor was initially responsive, prompt and reasonably priced. He was “a breath of fresh air” for Snitkovsky and his husband, but that experience was short-lived. He had replaced their kitchen floors in May, and as the bathroom renovations languished, he promised a cheaper and quicker completion.

How Polina Snitkovsky's North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000.  Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

How Polina Snitkovsky’s North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000. Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

“I actually ended up with all the eggs in one basket because he kept saying he would be able to do other things cheaper,” Snitkovsky said. “Everything was a lie. The truth is it’s a very clear intention to deceive – the man took the money twice for the shower surrounds and never placed the order.”

In September last year, Snitkovsky contacted New Castle County police to file a complaint. The Delaware Attorney General’s Office ultimately declined to pursue charges, Snitkovsky said, because attorneys did not see an intent to deceive.

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The Delaware Department of Justice confirmed they received a complaint from Snitkovsky, but declined to pursue charges because there was not enough evidence.

The reality is that few home improvement fraud charges stick, and even when prosecutors pursue cases, it’s rare for victims to get their money back.

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Brian Robertson, head of the white collar crime unit in Delaware’s Department of Justice, said prosecuting home improvement fraud is similar to theft charges – you have to prove a contractor intended to swindle a customer from the time they signed a contract.

“It’s hard to prove what’s in somebody’s mind. You are dealing with a lot of he said versus she said, and the contracts are not very detailed – if they even have a contract,” he said. “While there may be an order and provisions to provide restitution, the reality is that many of those rewards go unsatisfied.”

As more felony home improvement fraud charges are pursued by state police, homeowners can protect themselves by understanding how these cases are handled and taking steps to avoid becoming a victim.

Have you been scammed?

If you think a crime is committed, contact local police first.

The state justice department depends on local authorities to investigate home improvement fraud complaints, particularly in determining if a crime was committed, said Brian Eng, consumer mediation unit head for the justice department.

“If (people) think it’s criminal home improvement fraud, contact the police because they are the ones who investigate crimes,” Eng said. “We don’t make an assessment on that.”

How Polina Snitkovsky's North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000.  Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

How Polina Snitkovsky’s North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000. Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

Police then refer cases to the state. If someone is criminally charged, the case typically goes to the white collar crime unit. If it’s civil, like a violation of the consumer fraud act, Eng’s department handles the complaint.

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Sometimes, there is no criminal or civil violation – a contractor is just “bad at their job” Eng said – or there was a breach of contract, which is a private legal matter.

Most complaints are neither criminal nor civil, so the only thing the justice department can do is try to mediate the problem internally, he said.

“The first thing we do is try to resolve the complaints,” Eng said, adding that consumers rarely want the contractor to be punished, only the issue is resolved. “Staffers reach out to the consumer and business and see if the problem can get sorted out. Sometimes it’s just getting the lines of communication open.”

What charges can be filed?

While total home improvement fraud charges have remained relatively consistent, police are increasingly pursuing felony fraud charges, Delaware State Police data shows.

The percentage of felony cases for state police went from 55% in 2015 to 97% last year.

Felony charges are filed if the victim is 65 or older, or the fraud claimed totals more than $1,500, Robertson said. Senior citizens are often victims of home improvement fraud, which can account for many of the felony charges, he added.

What are the signs to look out for?

Any home owner looking for an inexpensive contractor for home improvement projects can fall victim to unscrupulous construction firms.

A bare-bones contract, or nothing at all in writing, is a common theme.

The “informality of agreements” and the promise of an inexpensive fix tends to lead to victimization, Robertson said.

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Inflated construction costs, workers out sick with COVID-19, and extended delays in accessing supplies have plagued the industry in recent years, forcing contractors to increase cost estimates and push out project completion dates.

The average homeowner may not understand those are legitimate impacts, Robertson said.

How Polina Snitkovsky's North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000.  Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

How Polina Snitkovsky’s North Wilmington home was left by a contractor she says defrauded her out of more than $20,000. Snitkovsky says her bathrooms were gutted, but never renovated.

“These are all things that need to be vetted to the extent possible, and unfortunately, the bad actors know this and can try and exploit those questions and interject enough doubts that really prevent us from going the criminal route,” he said. “We cannot ethically move forward with a case if there is any cause to believe that it will not result in a conviction.”

In Snitkovsky’s case, the contractor completed some of the renovations the North Wilmington homeowner had hired him for, specifically replacing the kitchen floors, weakening the case of home improvement fraud and tipping it toward a private civil matter.

What are the odds of success?

Most home improvement fraud arrests don’t end in guilty pleasures – on average, less than a quarter.

Instead, the majority of cases were dismissed, reduced to a lesser charge, moved to another court, or dropped for some other reason, state justice department data shows.

Few home improvement fraud arrests are publicized, too. While State Police have received 13 incident reports involving three defendants so far this year, authorities have only released one news release announcing charges against a Maryland man for defrauding an Ocean View family out of more than $23,000.

And although there were 83 arrests last year and four guilty pleas, the State Police only put out one news release regarding charges against a Georgetown contractor. Police did not respond to questions regarding the department’s criteria for putting out releases for home improvement fraud charges.

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Since most cases fall into the civil realm, the consumer mediation unit works with people to inform them of their options and resolve problems through an “informal process,” Eng said. If that doesn’t work, then a case is sent to the consumer protection unit, he said.

The odds are slim for consumers getting their money back, too, even if a contractor pleads guilty or is convicted.

Robertson, from the justice department’s white collar crime unit, said restitution awards are separate from any criminal or civil charges, so when contractors become entangled in fraud charges it’s rare the money was saved.

“They are taking this money and chances are they are not putting it in a 401k, they are blowing through it,” he said, “something that suggests there isn’t a pool of money that is brought to bear when there is a restitution award.”

Got a tip? Contact Amanda Fries at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @mandy_fries.

This article originally appeared on the Delaware News Journal: Contractor scams can be hard to prove. What to do if it happens to you