Ernest Kelly has a warning for fellow homeowners: Be wary of door-to-door solicitors offering to pave driveways.
Kelly, 80, an Allegany County resident, said he was swindled out of more than $7,000 from unlicensed contractors who pressured him to pay for shoddy and incomplete work. He said the contractor followed him to his credit union to collect a check.
"There was nothing I could do then. I thought I had to pay," Kelly said. "I should have called the law right there."
State officials are investigating an uptick in complaints by Maryland homeowners victimized by similar scams this year. The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation issued its own warning this month about unlicensed traveling contractors trying to con homeowners into buying inexpensive asphalt coating or sealing services. The coating or sealing turns out to be oil mixed with water, black paint or another inferior substance that crumbles or washes away with the next rainstorm.
Arrest warrants have been issued against several people acting as unlicensed contractors, a misdemeanor in Maryland. Swindles involving home improvement repairs or replacements are often seasonal, but the Maryland Home Improvement Commission has received over a dozen complaints this year, compared to fewer than five in a typical year.
"For the most part, what we're finding is a number of individuals who are traveling in from other parts of the country. Their vehicles have out-of-state tags," said Steve Smitson, executive director of the commission, which licenses contractors. "One warning sign that homeowners could look to is to check the vehicle, and if it's out of state, we urge them to be particularly cautious."
The increase in complaints is due in part to a growing number of unlicensed contractors as unemployment has risen, Smitson said. Moreover, perpetrators are targeting the elderly, who are often more vulnerable.
Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said these con artists are skilled at identifying which homes are occupied by the elderly based on the type of vehicle parked in the driveway or the kinds of curtains in the window.
"They think they can intimidate them if there's any argument on how much to pay, and they also know older people tend to be more trusting," Grant said, noting that home improvement scams are among the most common complaints received by state and local consumer agencies nationwide.
Kelly, the Allegany County homeowner, said a man approached him while he was trimming bushes in front of his home in July 2009. Kelly said he initially declined the man's offer to pave his driveway but eventually agreed after being pestered. Kelly said he was charged $7,200 for a "pretty rough job" by the unlicensed contractor and his workers.
An arrest warrant was issued against Robert Clinton Taylor of Richlands, Va. when he failed to appear in court, according to court documents. Taylor could not be reached for comment Friday.
Before agreeing to any work, homeowners should check whether the contactor has a license. Invoices and company letterhead should include the license number, Smitson said.
Maryland's door-to-door sales law provides another layer of protection. It gives buyers a three-day window to cancel purchase agreements for items and services above $50, Smitson said.
In Howard County, any solicitor who goes door to door must obtain a license from the county's Office of Consumer Affairs.
This month, the office fielded a complaint from an Ellicott City resident who became suspicious of a contractor who completed pavement work quickly. The homeowner called the company listed on the invoice and discovered that the man did not work there, said Rebecca Bowman, administrator of the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs.
The homeowner called the bank immediately and stopped payment on a $250 check, Bowman said.
"If you're interested in what the person is selling, don't be rushed into making a purchase," Bowman said. "Take your time; think about it. Once you pay the money, it's always difficult to get it back."
Tips to avoid a driveway paving scam and other door-to-door cons:
Check the license status of home improvement contractors and anyone person selling related services. The state has an online license database at http://www.dllr.maryland.gov/license.
Know your rights. You can cancel contracts above $50 within three days of signing. A contractor cannot start work until that window has expired.
Obtain a written contract, which should include the contractor's license number and clearly state the three-day cancellation policy.
Never pay cash