By PAUL ELIAS Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — California authorities arrested 75 people, some with shady pasts and most of them accused of working without proper licenses, during an undercover sting operation conducted last week by the Contractors State License Board.
The board announced Friday that its annual operation netted two registered sex offenders, two people with multiple felony records and three with open warrants for their arrest.
“Homeowners should be nervous when they hear the background of some of the people we caught in these stings,” said board registrar Steve Sands. “Unlicensed, illegal activity that puts homeowners at risk and legitimate contractors at a competitive disadvantage will not be tolerated.”
Some 72 of those arrested are suspected of operating without contractor’s license. They face a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted.
The board said the majority of suspects were found through advertisements on Craigslist.org. The board also said 56 of the suspects may be charged with illegal advertising and 10 of them with requiring an excessive down payment.
Anyone can advertise to perform jobs of less than $500, but ads must state they are not licensed contractors. Illegal advertising convictions fetch maximum fines of $1,000 each.
Meanwhile, a home improvement project down payment in California cannot exceed 10 percent of the contract total or $1,000, whichever is less. A conviction of requiring an excessive down payment carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Investigators of the annual autumn “California Blitz” posed as homeowners seeking bids for home improvements such as painting, electrical, plumbing, landscaping, flooring, drywall, fencing, concrete, and tree removal work.
Arrests were made in six California locations on Wednesday and Thursday, including in the area burned in the recent Silver Fire near Banning in Riverside County. The board said more arrests may be coming because some suspects are expected to provide fax or email bids to undercover agents at a later date.
In the last twelve months, the California Contractors State License Board, along with the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies, has published several customer notifications telling them there is considerable uncertainty in hiring a contractor from Craigslist, that it may be someone who claims to be a licensed professional and is not.
In California, contractors are legally obligated to put their license number in every single advertisement, whether it’s on radio, TV, Internet or newspaper. Those without licenses can only advertise to handle gigs that will pay less than $500 and must disclose that they are unlicensed.
The CSLB say they check Craigslist and other pages, to see if there are any people who are not practicing legal contractor conduct. Craigslist is the number one place to track down violators and seek them out in covert sting operations.
“A lot of time in our undercover operations we pose as homeowners,” CSLB Spokesman Rick Lopes said. “As a homeowner, you would look on Craigslist or you’d look on different places to find a contractor, and then you’d call them up and get a bid.”
The CSLB stated in June that operations done in eight cities in California have resulted in 100 suspect arrests. 75 of those 100 were tracked down via Craigslist ads.
Craigslist tells its users that those that want to post contractor ads must define if they are licensed or unlicensed on the “Skilled Trade Services” section of the site. That same section allows users to double check if contractors are licensed in a particular state.
Lopes states that users have found an escape route in the Craigslist system. By leaving the spot for a contracting license number blank or by making up a fake license number, users can pass their page as valid.
The CSLB has pushed Craigslist to tighten up their ad policies, but Craigslist has not reached out to the CSLB.
“[Craigslist] is a free platform for people to advertise. It’s a very level playing field for the unlicensed people to advertise right next to the licensed people,” Lopes said. “We’ve had a difficult time trying to get Craigslist to do some things to make it more difficult for the unlicensed contractors to do illegal advertising.”
Lopes says other states have had the same issues with bogus advertisements for contracts without licenses.
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