The residual impacts of Hurricane Florence, and to some degree Hurricane Dorian, are still reverberating through the county and region as homeowners and businesses seek to correct shoddy work provided by less than capable, and in some cases, fraudulent construction companies.

Last month, News-Times reporter Elise Clouser reported on a complaint and court case filed against a local contractor for shoddy services that resulted in the arrest of the contractor and civil charges are pending. Recently District Attorney Scott Thomas announced that a Pine Tops resident pled guilty to felony counts of defrauding two local residents for failure to perform as promised in the repair of their homes. In the most recent case the contractor, Stanley Winslow Sears Jr. of Pine Tops, took advance payments from the homeowners he victimized and never performed the work agreed upon.

Fortunately the homeowners victimized by Mr. Sears have won their case in court and restitution is being made. But regaining the lost funds still does not account for the challenges these homeowners experienced getting restitution and then having to either delay or pay extra for the needed work. Remember, Florence is now over a year-and-a-half behind us.

Sadly there are many others instances of shoddy work and probably outright fraud that have gone unreported or corrected, as noted in Ms. Clouser’s February 16 article. And the failure of victims to act only emboldens charlatans to continue to ply their trade.

District Attorney Scott Thomas noted in the article that instances of fraudulent construction service are higher than those reported to either the sheriff’s office or to the state’s Department of Insurance. Cheryl Coulson, founder of the Facebook page “Onslow Fighting Contractor Fraud” noted that “some people are embarrassed by it (being victimized)” so they fail to report the scam. And then as Mr. Thomas noted, many of the contractors are “judgement proof” due to a lack of funds or assets to attach.

There is also the cost and complexity of the cases which is a cause for reticence to pursue legal action.

According to Mr. Thomas many of the cases involve just shoddy work and so do not warrant criminal action but instead, civil action. As he noted the lawsuits are costly in time and money so many victims simply drop the suits. As of January of this year, the county sheriff’s office has handled 16 cases for contractor fraud since Florence passed the area September 14, 2018. Nine of the cases resulted in criminal charges, six were considered civil matters and one victim declined prosecution.

It is unfortunate that scammers prey on those in need, particularly in a time of crisis when those needing service most will initiate a contract, usually requiring some sort of deposit or advance payment, with only a cursory check of the contractor. The state unfortunately does not maintain a centralized database and the contractor license does not guarantee honesty.  Invariably it is up to the victims and the community to take action to stop these criminals.

In conclusion, these stories require more diligence on the part of the consumer. Several steps need to be taken when seeking a contract for home or business repair. The first step is not to respond quickly. Take time to: work with insurance companies to get accurate damage assessment; work with only licensed and insured contractors; get multiple estimates; require references and check them; get all the details such as schedule and guarantees in writing; and  finally, never pay a contractor in cash or in-full until the job is complete with a signed completion certificate.

Without the courage displayed by these victimized homeowners to pursue legal action against the scammers there would be nine individuals who would be emboldened to continue to take advantage of people in need. The only way to assure that these criminals are stopped is to take action boldly and not worry about the embarrassment. 

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