A resident of Cranford - one of the hardest-hit towns during - has been charged by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office with operating allegedly as an unregistered home improvement contractor, and trying to capitalize on the August disaster that and left deperate homeowners in search of builders.
Maria Somma, advertising her business as “Chester & Maria” of Cranford, was one of eight individuals criminally charged in a recent multi-agency, four-day undercover operation in Bergen County.
According to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, the eight individuals charged criminally were identified as not having any business information on file with the State. The staging place for the undercover operation was a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Cape Cod-style dwelling in Lyndhurt. Like many homes in that town - and in Cranford - it suffered extensive structural and mold damage as a result of flooding from the August hurricane.
As part of the operation, Division of Consumer Affairs investigators, posing as homeowners, responded to home repair advertisements shortly after the floodwaters receded. The investigators invited a total of 16 contractors to visit the undercover house, examine the damage and provide repair estimates, according to information provided by the Division of Consumer Affairs.
According to the DCA, a total of 12 contractors who arrived at the home allegedly were not registered to perform any residential home improvement work. Some of them allegedy provided repair estimates as high as $30,000 to residents in need of services.
"Some of the allegedly unregistered contractors showed up without bringing a single tape measure, ruler, meter, or any other measuring device," said Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. "According to our investigation, one allegedly unregistered contractor, advertising through flyers posted at a local grocery store, turned out to have a California driver's license, a Massachusetts license plate, and a New Jersey post office box."
The Attorney General's Office indicated that since 2006, New Jersey law requires anyone advertising or performing home improvement work to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs. New Jersey's Contractors' Registration Act and Advertising Regulations protect consumers by helping ensure the accountability of those performing residential improvements. The act and regulations require contractors to demonstrate they have a legitimate business address that is a street address, and at least $500,000 in liability insurance, before they can become registered, according to the federal government.
As a result of the undercover operation, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office filed fourth-degree criminal charges against eight of the contractors, including Somma. In New Jersey, a fourth-degree offense carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $10,000.
The DCA filed civil Notices of Violation against the remaining four contractors who, although having filed their businesses with the State, allegedly advertised and solicited home improvement work without being registered. The four contractors face civil penalties of $5,000 each.
The undercover operation began in September 2011 as a collaboration between the Division of Consumer Affairs and Lyndhurst Police Department. The Police Department identified the privately owned home whose owner was willing to host the undercover investigation.
In the first phase of the operation, undercover investigators sought out contractors the way many consumers do – by reading advertisements online, in newspapers, and in flyers posted at local stores. The investigators used the posted contact information to invite the contractors to inspect the damaged home and provide repair estimates. The inspections were conducted over the course of four days, on Oct. 5, 6, 7, and 13, 2011.
During the operation’s second phase, the State provided information from its investigation to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which conducted additional investigation resulting in the criminal charges against eight contractors.
In addition to Somma, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has filed fourth-degree criminal charges against the following, allegedly unregistered contractors, each of which is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Gerard Carrion, advertising as “Reliable Handyman Service,” of Sparta
- David Czeizinger, advertising as “Mr. D’s Home Improvement,” of Kearny
- Joseph Dellasala, of Hackensack
- Perlat Jera, advertising as “Jera Home Improvement,” of Hasbrouck Heights
- John Robbie, advertising as “John Robbie’s Carpentry Plus,” of North Arlington
- Stan Stanley, of Wayne
- Peter Varley, advertising as “Reliable Home Improvement,” of Annandale
The Division of Consumer Affairs has filed civil Notices of Violation against the following, allegedly unregistered contractors, each of which may request an administrative hearing in which to challenge the charges:
- Jorge Avila, advertising as Toyo Construction, in Morristown
- Niksa Dobre, advertising as Asseria Construction, in Totowa
- Carlos Guarquila, advertising as CG General Construction, in Bellville
- Ruben Silva, advertising as R&S Home Improvement, in Newark
Consumer complaints about unregistered and dishonest home improvement contractors were the second-most common complaint type reported to the Division of Consumer Affairs in 2010, representing 1,400 of the 13,800 consumer complaints filed that year.
Chief Eric Mason of the , who is also serving as the acting township administrator, said the police department hasn't been made aware of any similar scams involving contractors since the hurricane.
"One of first things we did after flood was to let people know they should be aware of that type of activity. We think that went a long way in letteing people know and preventing this type of situation," Mason said.
"We ell people all the time that they need to check references of anyone knocking on their door offering their services," Mason said.
The chief also advises residents seeking contractors to get contracts from the vendor.
"Also, be wary of people going door to door. That is not how you should be acquiring these services. That should be a red flag," he said, as should the requirement of a large cash advance by the contractor before the work begins.
The DCA said that before residents hire a contractor, they should learn whether the contractor is properly registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs. The law requires home improvement contractors to include their State registration number, which always begins “13VH,” on all contracts, signs, and advertisements as a resource for consumers.
Residents can also contact the DCA to learn whether the contractor’s registration is still valid or if the contractor has been the subject of consumer complains, at 1-800-242-5846, access our online database at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/LVinfo.htm, or use the free "New Jersey Professional License Lookup" iPhone application, available for download by visiting www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov.
Consumers should also ask for a copy of the contractor's liability insurance policy, and contact the insurer to make sure the policy is valid.
Editor's note: The photo that was previously included with this article depicting residents delivering food to flood victims has been removed. The residents who appeared in the picture were not, in any way, involved in the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office investigation.