State task force charges 10 with $300,000 in scams against older people

rgallagher@newsobserver.com krupp@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

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    Avoid contractor and home repair fraud:

    • The homeowner should generally initiate contact with the contractor. Avoid unsolicited offers for home repairs or contractors who come to your door who say they noticed a problem with your home. • Compare written offers among different companies for a home repair job. • Check contractors’ references and insurance company to verify that their coverage is current. Contact the Better Business Bureau and the NC Attorney General’s office to see if the firm has a history of complaints. • Have a written contract. It should clearly state the work to be performed, estimated start and completion dates, the quality of the materials to be used, and the total cost including labor and materials. The contract should also state who is responsible for clean-up and trash removal once the job is done. • If you signed your contract at your home (rather than at the contractor’s place of business), under North Carolina law you have three business days to cancel it. Information from State Attorney General’s office: bit.ly/1e6TLyH

— State officials announced Monday they had charged 10 men with 75 charges involving schemes to exploit more than $300,000 from elderly homeowners for unneeded home repairs.

As many as 10 people, with an average age of 85, were victimized by members of the fraud ring, none of whom are licensed contractors. Protecting seniors from this kind of fraud is especially difficult, Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

“Scam artists will start by knocking on a senior’s door and offer to clean the gutters or clean up outside the house for $25,” Cooper said. Then a criminal will claim he noticed a major problem with the roof or home that needs to be addressed immediately, he said.

“It will be a ridiculous amount of money for what they do, and a lot of times seniors do not price it out,” Cooper said. “The list goes on and on with these fake repairs.”

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Cooper and other officials from the state Department of Justice said warrants had been served on the 10 defendants through Operation Nail It, a task force created early this year to end a home repair fraud ring that targeted seniors throughout central North Carolina.

The task force includes police in Cary, Raleigh, Wilson and Burlington; the State Bureau of Investigation; the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys’ Financial Crimes Initiative; and building inspectors in several communities.

“The task force was started by the Cary Police Department early this year when they began to notice trends in these home repair frauds,” said Tammy Smith of the District Attorney’s Financial Crimes Initiative.

Of the 10 men charged recently, police had already been seeking Robert Thomas Privette, 28, of 5821 Luther Lane and William Kenneth Ferrell, 49, of 931 Gay Road, both in Rocky Mount, since March.

Each was being held in lieu of $1 million bail Monday morning.

Police caught up with Privette, charged with obtaining property under false pretenses and exploiting the trust of elderly or disabled people, on Friday and charged him after questioning him at police headquarters.

Ferrell was being held on the same charges in the Edgecombe County Jail and was served with arrest warrants there.

Officers working with the task force found Privette on Friday and brought him to Cary police based on their charges from Nov. 20, said Cary Capt. Don Hamilton, commander of the investigations unit.

The charges against Ferrell stem from June 2012, his arrest warrant states.

Cooper said three factors make elderly residents especially vulnerable for these scams: Victims may come from a more trusting time, have savings to pay for repairs and have health problems such as dementia, making them easy marks.

“I get fraud alerts from the attorney general all the time,” said Alice Watkins, executive director of the nonprofit Alzheimer’s North Carolina.

“Anyone who has an elderly relative who lives alone, they should be checking on that person often,” Watkins said. “And if they know the person suffers from dementia, there should be someone to watch them all the time, if they even have a suspicion their relative may have memory loss.”

Privette and Ferrell are both accused of being part of a scam against a 78-year-old man who has Parkinson’s disease and could not check to see if work was really needed or was actually being done, police said.

Privette’s charge of obtaining property by false pretense relates to a $4,500 invoice for work that “was unnecessary” and that “was minimal, substandard or not completed,” a warrant states.

Ferrell, his warrant stated, gave the man an invoice for $2,110 for work that also was unneeded and shoddy.

The warrants also allege that they conspired with three other men to run the scheme for a total of $55,226. A call to law enforcement could have prevented the loss, officials said.

“We want to let seniors know to not be afraid to ask,” said Smith, of the district attorney’s financial crimes unit. “Ask questions whenever someone is offering help out of the blue. First ask for a second opinion, then ask for their licenses and their insurance.”

Smith said that many seniors, if they become aware they were cheated, are embarrassed to report it even to their families because they are afraid of losing their financial independence.

Gallagher 919-829-4572

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