There’s plenty of work for home improvement contractors around North Texas, but this is a business often driven by recommendations and referrals.
When new contractor Charles Brand got an online lead for an estimate to paint an entire house, he was pretty pumped. “He sent me a location for an address. He stated he wasn’t in the state, he was away undergoing surgery with a specialist in California. He wanted me to give an estimate while he was away, and wanted me to do the work while he was away,” said Brand.
This was odd, but Brand says not unheard of. He’s done work for many customers who live out-of-state or wanted work done while on vacation.
So, he headed to the home in Garland, sized it up and texted an estimate for the job to his potential client. “The estimate was $1,600, and he gave me a total of $5,100 in the form of two separate checks,” said Brand.
The homeowner told Brand he couldn’t start painting just yet. He claimed to have just bought the house and still owed the previous homeowner a few thousand dollars as part of the deal. He wanted Brand to help.
The text he sent Brand about the transaction said, “You will deduct $1,600 for your service and send the extra $3,500 to the initial ex-homeowner via cash deposit.”
He wanted Brand to deposit those checks, quickly, he asked the manager at the bank for advice. They researched the checks and yes they were fake.
Brand says, “Small businesses like myself we’re an easy target for people to send fraudulent checks and we’re gullible to accept”
Typically in schemes involving checks written for more than the amount of service, crooks ask you to deposit the checks and your bank will put the money in your account. The crook will then ask you to send the extra money back to them, or wire it to some third party. Days, sometimes even weeks later, the bank realizes the checks are fake and the money is taken back. But, you have already sent the extra cash and so that money is gone from your account.
If the scammers had succeeded, Brand says “they would put my business under the ground if that had turned back on me”.
The contractor referral site Home Advisor tells it's contractors if significant work is requested but the home owner has little regard to contract terms or job details. This can be a red flag. They also say that many times fraudulent homeowners will choose to only communicate over text or email instead of on the phone
Bottom line: if something seems fishy, it likely is, so trust your instincts, like Brand did. Never accept a check from someone who wants you to send money back, or in this case give it to someone else.
While some see red flags immediately, others don’t. New business owners looking to build clientele can be particularly vulnerable.
If someone feels they may have been a victim of fraud, they should contact their local law enforcement, FBI office, or can register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant.