Terrific contractor? Better check it out
with County Construction Licensing Board!

Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times
Published August 9, 2003

The two dozen homeowners bilked out of $1.1-million are not dummies. 

Some are business owners. One is an electrical engineer. Another is a sales manager.

Many were referred to Mark Kiser, who billed himself a licensed contractor, by friends, co-workers and even architects.

The homeowners checked Kiser's previous work, sought references and asked to see his contracting license. One even hired a real estate attorney to do a background check on Kiser and his company. The attorney said the check came back clean.

"What else could you possibly do? I hired an attorney to do the background check on the company," said Thomas Harris, who lost $31,000 to Kiser. "I also went out to the jobs that they had done."

Authorities say Kiser, who was charged Thursday with defrauding about 25 Pinellas homeowners, concealed from homeowners that he was not licensed or registered to work in Pinellas County.

Consumer protection investigators say that although his victims may have combed state contractor databases or checked with the Better Business Bureau, they probably neglected to make one important phone call.

They should have called the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which keeps track of all the county's licensed contractors. 

To perform home construction in Pinellas County, contractors must be certified with the county. If they are state-certified, they also must be registered with the board, said Connie Garriques-Sang, an investigator with the board.

Authorities say Kiser used the license of a Charlotte County contractor, Duane D. Hill Jr., and confused homeowners, who believed he was a certified agent of Hill Construction, authorities said.

"They cast themselves off to be whoever they wanted to be," said Harris, who owns Suncoast Pest Control.

But Kiser was not licensed to work in Pinellas County, nor was he registered as an agent of Hill's. 

Therefore, he was not qualified to work under his license, Garriques-Sang said.

Contractors rather routinely qualify others to perform work under their company name, many times legally and responsibly. This was not one of those cases, investigators said.

"There is a lot of that done legitimately, but unfortunately there is a lot of it done where someone allows someone to use his license with very little supervision or oversight," said John Wood, chief investigator for the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services.

Homeowners also can come into the construction licensing board's office and review the contractor's file to see if there have been complaints against them. The board also keeps track of contractors' insurance.

"It's all public record here," Garriques-Sang said.

The case against Kiser, one of the largest Pinellas construction frauds in recent memory, should serve as a lesson to all homeowners that thoroughly checking out contractors is a must, authorities said. 

"You would be surprised how many people it happens to who are very intelligent," Garriques-Sang said. "But intelligence doesn't have anything to do with it. It has to do with trust. People are trusting."

Many homeowners make mistakes right off the bat, hiring contractors who go door to door looking for work, Wood said.

"You never want to do that," he said. "I can say that 20 times, and it wouldn't be enough."

Wood suggested homeowners ask friends, family or co-workers if they know any good contractors, then find other candidates in the Yellow Pages or newspaper. 

Once they have a pool of candidates, they should look into their backgrounds.

After checking with the board to ensure the contractor is licensed, they should call the county's department of justice and consumer services.

Consumer protection investigators receive up to 300 complaints per month on everything from car mechanics to Internet scams. But the most complaints, about 15 percent, are against contractors, Wood said.

Over the phone, that agency can tell you a company's complaint history for the last five years. Though there was only one complaint against Kiser in 2001, there were 24 made from May to August of 2002.

Wood suggested homeowners go to one of the county clerk's offices and run the contractor's name through criminal records. 

Another good idea: Check out the contractor in civil court records. 

If a contractor has been sued for not fulfilling contracts, the homeowner should probably cross them off the list, Wood said.

A check of civil records shows Kiser was sued six times in Pinellas County from 1988 to 2002.

Homeowners also should be wary of contractors who ask for large sums of money up front or ask them to pull permits for them, Garriques-Sang said.

Harris, stung by Kiser and now wiser, said he won't pay a nickel up front to a contractor whom he's planning to hire to work on his Treasure Island home.

"He's going to do work and as the work is done and inspected, then I'm going to pay him," he said.