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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Connecticut lures 44 unregistered contractors in sting operation

Connecticut lures 44 unregistered contractors in sting operation
By Lee Howard

All face $250 fine after submitting bids at Waterford home

Using a tiny camera concealed in a display of plastic flowers at a Waterford home, the state Department of Consumer Protection conducted a sting operation over the past three months that led to 44 people - most of them from southeastern Connecticut - being cited Tuesday for failing to register as home-improvement professionals or, in one case, allowing someone else to use their registration number.

Caught in the sting were seven contractors or salespeople from Waterford, three each from New London and Bozrah, two each from Norwich, Colchester, Middletown, Madison, Waterbury and Westbrook and one each from Old Lyme, Niantic, Groton, Ledyard and Taftville. One contracting company involved in the sting, Certapro Painter, hailed from Pennsylvania.

The sting, conducted at 345 Rope Ferry Road, placed investigators posing as homeowners at the deteriorating Waterford home, where a small operations center was set up in an office area off the kitchen. Investigators reviewed more than 200 advertisements and invited contractors to submit bids on various projects.

"They said, 'We just bought the place, and we have to redo the whole thing,' " said Claudette Carveth, Consumer Protection spokeswoman. "Look around, and tell us what to do.' "

Bids on projects ranged from roofing and carpentry work to painting, flooring, paving, fencing and landscaping. The home is currently owned by the state Department of Transportation and previously had been used as a group home by the state Department of Developmental Services.

Unregistered contractors face a $250 fine for violating the Connecticut Home Improvement Act or the Home Solicitation Sales Act. A contractor's license costs $220.

"We want the penalty to be greater than the cost of compliance," said Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein, who held a short press conference at the musty home used for the sting.

But at least one person caught in the sting, Cheryl Pappas, owner of the Greek Gardener in New London, said she had never submitted a written quote for work at the home. Pappas said she had merely offered advice to the purported homeowner, and refused to even respond when the investigator asked whether she thought the gardening work would cost $5,000.

"It's entrapment - that's what I think," she said in a phone interview.

Pappas said she's a gardener, not a landscaper, but admitted it's a gray area and said she would henceforth register as a home-improvement contractor. Meanwhile, she vowed to fight the state's civil penalty.

"I walked away," she said.

The state has conducted home-contracting stings for the past decade, with the exception of 2008, when budget constraints canceled the operation. The most recent sting locally was conducted in Montville six years ago.

Rubenstein said compliance with state contracting laws has improved since the stings started. A decade ago, 60 percent of contractors investigated were found to be flouting the law. This year, only 21 percent failed to comply.

What's more, the state currently has 27,000 registered home-improvement contractors, an increase of 4,000 from just four years ago.

Rubenstein pointed out that homeowners who use registered contractors have more protections than those who don't. The state's Home Improvement Guarantee Fund can help compensate consumers left with problems after a registered contractor fails to perform, but no such rights are given to those who use workers without Connecticut registration numbers.

"In terms of volume and cost, the highest-ranking consumer complaint in Connecticut and nationally each year is home improvement," Rubenstein said. "We're working for 100 percent compliance."

The home where the sting occurred is right off Route 156 near the Niantic River Bridge. According to William A. Dorn, supervisor of rights of way for the DOT, it was acquired by eminent domain in 1987 as the state began planning the construction of a new bridge, and the state likely will put the property on the market now that the government has no more use for it.

A tiny video camera hidden in a plastic flower was used by investigators from the Department of Consumer Protection in a sting operation against unregistered home improvement contractors.

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