CBS 58 Investigates: Criminal charges for bad contractors
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- CBS 58 Investigates frequently gets calls about contractor issues, but why is it happening so often, and what can be done?
A lot of these bad contractor cases end up in civil court. The contractors CBS 58 Investigates has looked in to, all owe a lot of money but rarely pay it back.
Annette Kaja, for example, won a judgement against a contractor but didn’t actually get the roughly $1,500 he owes.
These con artist contractors aren’t just a trend CBS 58 Investigates is seeing. Law enforcement says this is a growing problem.
Det. Holly McManus with the St. Francis Police Department regularly investigates these cases. She says it’s so common because people are looking for easy ways to make money.
“The state of Wisconsin does not have any licensure requirements that say a contractor has to have A, B, C and D in order to be a valid contractor,” Det. McManus said.
Det. McManus recently took a course on contractor fraud at Waukesha County Technical College.
“We talk a lot about where’s the venue?” said April Devalkenaere, who teaches the class. “Who has the jurisdiction in which to charge a case?”
Devalkenaere is a white collar crime paralegal with the Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office.
“We also talk about who they need to be contacting, who they need to be in communication with and who we can utilize as witnesses, especially if we don’t have written documentation,” Devalkenaere said.
While the contracting industry isn’t closely regulated, there are charges contractors can face if they take money and don’t do the work.
“According to the statutes and according to the theft statues, most cases could be considered criminal,” Det. McManus said.
But the cases can take a long time to investigate. Between getting warrants, subpoenas and going through financial records, Devalkenaere says they average about 18 months.
“We just had a case that was four years long, but it was quite extensive,” Devalkenaere said. “But the restitution in that case was nearly half a million dollars.”
And in most cases, customers really just want their money back and take it to civil court.
“I think once they get their money back, it’s easier to just stop pursuing it because it’s less stressful that way,” Devalkenaere said.
CBS 58 Investigates did interview one victim who says he went to police. We first interviewed Scott Ellei in 2018. He filed a police report shortly after we talked to him.
58 Investigates found the contractor who ripped him off has several civil suits against him, but hasn’t paid most of the victims. Ellei says that’s why he went the criminal route, but the case didn’t go anywhere.
“No one ever contacted me from the police department,” Ellei said.
We reached out to Milwaukee police to get more information, but haven’t heard back.
Det. McManus says every jurisdiction handles cases differently and makes a decision about what cases can be prosecuted.
So how do you avoid these contracts? Experts say do your research.
Check court records, the Better Business Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
And once you hire someone, get the details in writing.
“The signatures really are a binding way that the contractor commits to the job,” Det. McManus said. “A lot of people communicate via text and via email. The problem with the email communication is sometimes we don’t have signatures.”
McManus adds that people should never pay cash. Use a check or form of payment that can be traced.
And if you do get ripped off, report it somewhere, whether that’s to police, Better Business Bureau or the state. You may save someone else from getting ripped off.