The case shows how hard it once was to bust fraudulent contractors before the "Home Improvement Fraud Law" went into effect and how easy it is now, a detective said.
After a Bensalem home improvement contractor was charged with scamming 19 people in September, seven more victims have come forward with tales of the contractor's deception, according to Bensalem police.
And some of them were allegedly ripped off after July 1, when Pennsylvania's new contractor law went into effect. That means contractor Jason Matthews is being charged under the new law, adding another felony count to several he already faces, police said.
On Wednesday, Matthews, 35, waived his right to a preliminary hearing to review the charges against him. His case now goes to trial in county court. Bensalem police and the Bucks County District Attorney's Office also added the new charges. His formal arraignment in county court is scheduled for mid-December.
Matthews' case illustrates how difficult it used to be to bust predatory contractors - and how easy it is to charge them under the new law, Bensalem Detective John Monaghan said.
Before, authorities had to allege a pattern of fraud among multiple victims. Police said they did that with Matthews. But building the case took time with some of the alleged crimes occurring in the early 2000s.
Under the new law, one incident of alleged fraud could be enough for criminal charges. And, if the contractor takes more than $2,000, which allegedly was the case with Matthews' newer victims, he can be charged with a felony, Monaghan said.
Matthews faces charges of theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception and fraudulent business practices, which are third-degree felonies and each punishable by up to seven years in prison. The new charge, known as the "Home Improvement Fraud Law," is also a third-degree felony.
Including the new victims, Matthews allegedly fleeced more than two dozen people - many of them Bucks residents - out of a total of more than $70,000. In many cases, they were taken for a grand or two when Matthews ripped out a kitchen or a bathroom but never finished the home-improvement jobs, police said.
On Wednesday, more than 20 people sat in Leonard Brown's district court in Bensalem, ready to testify in case the preliminary hearing occurred.
One of them was Anthony Martello of Bensalem. Martello said he and his wife needed to replace the siding on the back of their house. They contacted Matthews because they saw a flier he had posted.
Matthews ripped down the siding, exposing the house's insulation, Martello said. Matthews didn't come back for a while, Martello said.
A rainstorm came in the meantime and destroyed the family room's ceiling.
"He came back and told this sob story about the motor going in his truck and how he had four kids who were all hungry," Martello said. "I felt bad for the guy."
Even though the job wasn't finished, Martello paid Matthews the rest of the money needed to finish the job. Matthews never did, Martello said. Including the damage from the rainstorm, Martello was out nearly $3,000.
"The thing that bothers me the most is that I was trying to help him," Martello said.
Another man who was ready to testify was Nick Yiambilis, owner of Bensalem Check Cashing on Street Road where Matthews allegedly went to cash his victims' checks.
"I knew immediately he was no good," Yiambilis said. "He brought in five checks, (all of which) stopped payment within eight days."
Many of Matthews' alleged victims were in Bensalem and Levittown, court records show. But Matthews also preyed on people in Philadelphia and as far as Chester County, police said. He was listing himself as J.C.M. Electric, Affordable Contractor or Trademark Home Remodeling among other names.
It would be hard for someone like Matthews to operate under Pennsylvania's new Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, Monaghan said. The new law requires contractors who earn more than $5,000 per year from home improvement jobs to register with the state Attorney General's Office. They must pay a $50 fee, provide their name, address, home phone and Social Security numbers, and prove they carry at least $50,000 in liability insurance to legally work in the state.
Once they do that, they should get a registration number, which would be a required part of all contracts, advertisements and business cards. To find out if a contractor has registered with the Attorney General's Office, visit www.attorneygeneral.gov or call 1-800-441-2555.
Matthews is in Bucks County prison in lieu of $850,000 bail. Even if he comes up with the $85,000 bond, he has parole and probation violations and burglary charges in New Jersey that would likely prevent his release while awaiting trial on the contracting charges, police said.
Even though Matthews was criminally charged, restitution is another matter. Monaghan said Matthews appears to have no assets that can be seized to pay back his victims.
Often times, folks who must pay restitution can make payments of only about $50 a month, Monaghan said. In Matthews' case, that would have to be split up equally between all of his 26 alleged victims.
9 tips to avoid contractor fraud
?????????????????? Contractors in Pennsylvania have to register with the state. To find out if a contractor has registered with the Attorney General's Office, visit www.attorneygeneral.gov or call 1-800-441-2555.
? Be wary of any contractor who approaches you. Beware of anyone who drives an unmarked or poorly marked truck. Contractors should have a land line phone and a permanent address - not a post office box.
? If a contractor says the job doesn't require permits or licenses, stay away from him. He might say your taxes will go up if you use a permit. That's often untrue. And without a permit or a license, municipalities can't check the quality of the work or whether a contractor has insurance or a bona fide place of residence at which to track him down.
? Contactors should have insurance. $1 million is reasonable.
? Contractors should provide references. And homeowners must check with those references to see that the work was done and done well.
? Always have a contract - but not just any contract. The document should be well-detailed with start and finish dates as well as an itemized timeline documenting when specific portions of the job will be completed. The contract should also itemize which materials will be used - even the color of the wood - and the cost of each phase of the project.
? Lawyers recommend that you pay them to look over the contract if it's for a large project. "Pay me now, or pay me later," Middletown-based Harry Agzigian said. "With the way the contract is worded, we will know right away if something is amiss."
? Never give a lot of money up front.
? Don't fire a contractor. Take him to court first. The scheming contractors want to get fired. That way they can say in court that they couldn't finish or fix the project because you wouldn't let them.
? Check contractor reputations. Contact the Better Business Bureau and Bucks County Department of Consumer Protection by calling 215-348-7442. Contractor referrals also are available from local chapters of organizations such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (www.nari.org), the My Handyman network (www.myhandymanbucks.com) and the National Kitchen and Bath Association (www.nkba.org). Some of these organizations require that their members be certified and/or proficient in their trade.