NJ Consumer Affairs Uses “Undercover House” To Crackdown On Contractors

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NEWARK – With the arrival of the spring home improvement season, the State Division of Consumer Affairs intensified efforts against unregistered home improvement contractors with an undercover operation at a vacant Gloucester County home.

This week, in partnership with the Gloucester County Office of Consumer Affairs, the division filed charges against 18 home improvement contractors who solicited home improvement work without complying with state registration laws. The contractors are being assessed civil penalties as high as $5,000 each.

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Since 2006, the New Jersey Contractors’ Registration Act and Home Improvement Contractor Regulations require home improvement contractors to register with the State and obtain a registration number that begins “13VH.” To register, a home improvement contractor must provide proof of liability insurance, disclose a legitimate business address, and provide other information about the business. Contractors must display the registration number on all contracts, advertisements, and commercial vehicles as a reference for consumers.

“Unregistered and phony contractors rip off hundreds of New Jersey consumers each year, costing homeowners thousands of dollars,” Attorney General Paula T. Dow said. “Requiring registration with the State ensures that the contractor is a properly insured and established home improvement business – information that every consumer should possess before inviting a contractor into the family home.”

The sting operation took place in mid-March at a vacant home in Paulsboro provided by Gloucester County. The contractors, all of whom advertised home improvement services on the internet or in local publications, were invited to inspect the home and provide proposals for improvements, such as fence installation, painting, landscaping, carpentry, and heating and air conditioning work. Estimates for projects ranged from $1,850 to $15,000.

The undercover house is part of a continuing initiative launched by the division last month to identify home improvement contractors operating outside the state’s registration laws. In addition to the 18 contractors charged as a result of the sting, the initiative to date has resulted in the issuance of 76 thirty-day warnings. Those contractors that receive warnings have 30 days to come into compliance or face fines up to $10,000 per violation.

“With over 1,400 consumer complaints related to crooked contractors last year alone, the Division of Consumer Affairs, along with our valued partners in the county and local consumer affairs offices, is going on the offensive,” said Acting Director Thomas R. Calcagni. Calcagni noted that two of the 18 home improvement contractors caught in last month’s undercover sting were based in Pennsylvania. “The message is simple: If you are performing home improvement work in this state, you will comply with the laws of this state. If you refuse to comply, you will pay.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs will continue to target unregistered home improvement contractors throughout the spring and summer. The goal is to bring contractors into compliance with the law, and remind consumers to be vigilant when they hire contractors to work on their homes.

Complaints about dishonest home improvement contractors are the second-most common that the State Division of Consumer Affairs received from consumers in 2010, representing 1,401 of the 13,761 consumer complaints filed with the division.

Before hiring a home improvement contractor, officials advised New Jersey consumers to:

  • Obtain the contractor’s State registration number, which always begins “13VH.”
  • Contact the State Division of Consumer Affairs to learn whether the contractor’s registration is still valid. Call the Division’s License Verification Line at 973-273-8090, or check the Division’s database of all 43,000 registered home improvement contractors at http://www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/LVinfo.htm .
  • Ask the State Division of Consumer Affairs whether there are any consumer complaints filed against the contractor.
  • Demand a copy of the contractor’s liability insurance policy.
  • Contact the insurer to learn whether the policy is still valid.

To advertise and perform home improvement work legally in New Jersey, contractors must register with the State Division of Consumer Affairs. Registration materials are available at http://NJConsumerAffairs.gov/HIC/HIC_application.htm .

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 State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website, www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov, or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 1-973-504-6200.

(Photo courtesy of NJ Dept. of Consumer Affairs)


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