With "Irene Undercover House," New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, Bergen County Prosecutor, and Lyndhurst Police File Charges Against 12 Unregistered Home Improvement Contractors
NEWARK - The staging place for the undercover operation was a four bedroom, three bathroom Cape Cod-style dwelling that, like many homes in its Lyndhurst neighborhood, suffered extensive structural and mold damage as a result of floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Irene. The home served as the base for a multi-agency, four-day undercover operation to expose allegedly unregistered home improvement contractors seeking to capitalize on the August 2011 natural disaster that left many homeowners in desperate need of home repair help.
As part of the operation, Division of Consumer Affairs investigators, posing as homeowners, responded to home repair advertisements shortly after the floodwaters receded. The investigators invited a total of 16 contractors to visit the undercover house, examine the damage, and provide repair estimates.
According to the investigation, a total of 12 contractors who arrived at the home allegedly were not registered to perform any residential home improvement work. But their lack of state-mandated annual registration did not prevent them from providing repair estimates exceeding $30,000 in some cases.
"Some of the allegedly unregistered contractors showed up without bringing a single tape measure, ruler, meter, or any other measuring device," said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. "According to our investigation, one allegedly unregistered contractor, advertising through flyers posted at a local grocery store, turned out to have a California driver's license, a Massachusetts license plate, and a New Jersey post office box."
Since 2006, New Jersey law requires anyone advertising or performing home improvement work to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs. New Jersey's Contractors' Registration Act and Advertising Regulations protect consumers by helping ensure the accountability of those performing residential improvements. The Act and regulations require contractors to demonstrate they have a legitimate business address that is a street address, and at least $500,000 in liability insurance, before they can become registered. The Act also requires that all home improvement contracts in excess of $500 contain clear language, including the project’s agreed-upon price, starting and ending dates, and scope of work.
Following the undercover operation, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office filed fourth-degree criminal charges against eight of the contractors. In addition to operating allegedly as unregistered home improvement contractors, the eight individuals charged criminally were identified as not having any business information on file with the State. In New Jersey, a fourth-degree offense carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $10,000.
The Division of Consumer Affairs filed civil Notices of Violation against the remaining four contractors who, although having filed their businesses with the State, allegedly advertised and solicited home improvement work without being registered. The four contractors face civil penalties of $5,000 each.
“We staged this sting in one of the many homes in this state that sustained enormous damage due to Tropical Storm Irene. And like the damaged homes of many desperate New Jerseyans who had their lives thrown into chaos by the extensive flooding, our undercover operation became an attractive target for those contractors willing to flout our consumer protection laws,” said Director Calcagni.
The undercover operation began in September 2011 as a collaboration between the Division of Consumer Affairs and Lyndhurst Police Department. The Police Department identified the privately owned home whose owner was willing to host the undercover investigation.
In the first phase of the operation, undercover investigators sought out contractors the way many consumers do – by reading advertisements online, in newspapers, and in flyers posted at local stores. The investigators used the posted contact information to invite the contractors to inspect the damaged home and provide repair estimates. The inspections were conducted over the course of four days, on October 5, 6, 7, and 13, 2011.
During the operation’s second phase, the State provided information from its investigation to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which conducted additional investigation resulting in the criminal charges against 8 contractors.
“The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office will take all necessary action to protect local residents, particularly the most vulnerable citizens,” said Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli. “Our office’s White Collar Crimes Unit commends this pro-active initiative by the Division of Consumer Affairs.”
Chief James B. O’Connor of the Lyndhurst Police Department said, "Homeowners in Lyndhurst suffered significant damage and real losses due to Tropical Storm Irene. It was essential to protect them against the even greater harm and monetary costs they could face by hiring contractors who choose not to comply with consumer protection laws. This partnership began when Division of Consumer Affairs investigators came out to our communities during the initial recovery period, to warn residents about home improvement and other scams. The Lyndhurst Police Department assisted in this effort by identifying the house that was used, and coordinating this collaboration."
The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has filed fourth-degree criminal charges against the following, allegedly unregistered contractors, each of which is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Gerard Carrion, advertising as "Reliable Handyman Service," of Sparta
- David Czeizinger, advertising as "Mr. D's Home Improvement," of Kearny
- Joseph Dellasala, of Hackensack
- Perlat Jera, advertising as "Jera Home Improvement," of Hasbrouck Heights
- John Robbie, advertising as "John Robbie's Carpentry Plus," of North Arlington
- Maria Somma, advertising as "Chester & Maria," of Cranford
- Stan Stanley, of Wayne
- Peter Varley, advertising as "Reliable Home Improvement," of Annandale
The Division of Consumer Affairs has filed civil Notices of Violation against the following, allegedly unregistered contractors, each of which may request an administrative hearing in which to challenge the charges:
- Jorge Avila, advertising as Toyo Construction, in Morristown
- Niksa Dobre, advertising as Asseria Construction, in Totowa
- Carlos Guarquila, advertising as CG General Construction, in Bellville
- Ruben Silva, advertising as R&S Home Improvement, in Newark
Calcagni noted that consumer complaints about unregistered and dishonest home improvement contractors were the second-most common complaint type reported to the Division of Consumer Affairs in 2010, representing 1,400 of the 13,800 consumer complaints filed that year.
Responding to this concern, the Division, in partnership with the County Offices of Consumer Affairs, launched an enforcement initiative throughout the spring and summer of 2011 cracking down on unregistered home improvement contractors.
The initiative began in March with an undercover house in Gloucester County, resulting in civil charges against 18 contractors. The initiative continued with a statewide mobile enforcement effort that resulted in another 31 contractors being charged. The charges announced today bring to 61 the total number of contractors charged in the Division's 2011 enforcement initiative.
The Division of Consumer Affairs offers the following advice for New Jersey consumers considering hiring a home improvement contractor:
- Learn whether the contractor is properly registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs. The law requires home improvement contractors to include their State registration number, which always begins "13VH," on all contracts, signs, and advertisements as a resource for consumers.
- Contact the Division of Consumer Affairs to learn whether the contractor's registration is still valid. Call the Division at 800-242-5846, access our online database, or use the free "New Jersey Professional License Lookup" iPhone application.
- Call the Division of Consumer Affairs to learn whether the contractor has been the subject of consumer complaints. You can also check the Division's online listing of legal filings to learn whether the business has been the subject of legal action by the Division.
- Demand a copy of the contractor's liability insurance policy, and contact the insurer to make sure the policy is valid.
- It is customary not to pay for the entire home improvement project in advance. Pay no more than one-third beforehand, one-third halfway through, and one-third upon completion.
In order to solicit and perform home improvement work legally in New Jersey, contractors are encouraged to register with the Division here.
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 or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey ) or 973-504-6200.
Follow the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook, and check our online calendar of upcoming Consumer Outreach events.