A total of 118 unlicensed contractors have been arrested following after a nine-month investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the arrests on Tuesday during a news conference in which he offered details of “Operation House Hunters.”
The Sheriff’s Office conducted the investigation from March 19, 2019, to Dec. 16, 2019. Using social media and advertising websites, detectives posed as homeowners and set up 191 appointments for home repairs.
Chronister said investigators conducted the operation to crack down on increased construction fraud in the area.
“They promise you the world of what they can do,” Chronister said. "They have no training, there's too much of an unknown, you don't know their level of expertise. Permits are expensive and they take time to get, but the good thing is you have an inspector come in and make sure that you as a homeowner aren't being victimized by substandard work that's being completed in your home.”
Chronister said the unlicensed contractors, who attempted to perform work totaling more than $540,000, prey on people who are looking to improve their homes in order to sell them.
“The housing market is booming in Tampa Bay right now, but that also means fraudsters are looking to exploit homeowners,” Chronister said. “They want to cash in while the getting is good. They want your hard-earned money, and they don’t care if you are left with poor quality work that could put you and your loved ones at risk.”
“This is a widespread problem – this isn't a Hillsborough County problem. This is a widespread Florida problem.”
The Sheriff’s Office released undercover video Tuesday showing three different unlicensed contractors working with detectives on estimates for home improvements.
Steven Velletri, 54, met with the prospective homeowner and offered to stucco and paint the exterior of his home for $4,200.
“What’s important is a fair exchange of money for fair services,” Velletri is seen saying on the video. “That’s what we do. I have references, we do the right thing.”
Velletri was then asked if he could offer his services for painting the prospective customer’s popcorn ceiling and replacing his flooring.
“I’ll do it all if you want,” Velletri said. “I do send you a formal (application), with a written invoice estimate.
“I have a business, I have insurance, I bring the correct things, I bring the right guys. I have a ton of guys I’ll turn loose in here; it’ll be their job. I’ll manage it, and let me tell you, there’s no way you can get better interior people than these two guys.”
Velletri was arrested on charges of unlicensed contracting, possession of marijuana (less than 20 grams), and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Deputies also determined Velletri was a registered sex offender convicted of third-degree rape.
“This is a prime example of why it is so important to know the background of the people you hire, and always choose reputable and licensed contractors,” Chronister said. “Take the time to ask for credentials, licenses and proof of insurance, talk with other customers, ask for references, and never be afraid to ask questions before letting someone into your home.”
A second unlicensed contractor shown on video, 47-year-old Troy James Massey, offered to install recessed lighting and paint the home’s interior.
Deputies learned his contractor’s license had been revoked in 2011 after he was accused of abandoning a project in Hillsborough County.
Seen on the video sitting on a bathroom counter, Massey told the detective that performing an estimate for a bathroom remodel is “a tricky estimating procedure. You’ve got so many variables – countertops, the sink, this thing; (the faucet) can be ‘x’ amount or ‘x’ amount.”
“In this case, a licensed electrician would be familiar with current electrical codes and requirements. They follow the latest practices to avoid the risk of fires, high voltage shocks and other hazards that can occur with substandard electrical work,” Chronister said. “I can’t stress enough the huge risk you take as a homeowner if you let people who don’t know what they are doing perform work in your home.”
Charles Vernice Sanders, 46, was one of eight repeat unlicensed contractors arrested – a felony offense.
Sanders was seen on video offering to remodel a bathroom. He told detectives he could remodel two bathrooms, a kitchen, install tile floors, and paint the interior and exterior of a home – for less than $20,000.
“To be honest, there’s nothing we don’t do,” Sanders said on video. “Right now I’ve got a big remodel going; we’ve got two metal roofs. There’s really nothing we don’t do.
“By trade I was an electrician, but I can’t stand to do the same thing all the time. We build fences, we cut trees, whatever.”
Chronister warned of the dangers of hiring someone unlicensed who doesn’t know the latest codes and requirements.
“I can't stress enough the huge risk you take as a homeowner,” Chronister said, “if you let people who don't know what they're doing, perform work around your home.”
Chronister advised homeowners to verify their contractor’s license on myfloridalicense.com or by performing a background check through the Better Business Bureau.