HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - When people fall victim to a construction scam, many are left with unpaid judgments and empty bank accounts.
After losing thousands of dollars, many scam victims run into obstacles when they try to get their money back.
This was the case for Lyn Scardina, a Horry County resident, who lost more than $6,000 to a local contractor hired to redo her kitchen.
She said she checked out his shop and equipment beforehand and he seemed legit.
However, Scardina explained that a few months after construction started the communication dropped off, work halted and materials were never delivered.
Scardina took action by filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, spoke to the police, reached out to local lawmakers and even went to court.
In October 2017, Scardina and her husband won a $6,580 judgement against Boss Cabinetry and Michael Dodds.
Despite winning, the Scardina’s have still not been paid.
“It’s been so disheartening and, if nothing else, I want to warn people, don’t trust anybody because scammers are good at what they do,” she said.
Renee Wikstrom, the communications director for the Better Business Bureau of Coastal Carolina, said nine out of 10 times, if individuals resort to taking a scammer to court, they are never going to get their money back.
Even if victims like Scardina win the judgement in court, if the defendant doesn’t have any money, they can’t get paid.
Victims do have the option to work with the local sheriff’s office to find out if the scammer has real or personal property. There are certain financial exemptions, but a lien can be placed on any property to hinder the sale of it.
Officials said the process of filing a judgement is still worth it because it puts the wrongdoing on record and impacts an individual’s credit.
In other states, victims can get their judgment paid through a process called wage garnishment, where the employer withholds a portion of the individual’s paycheck.
In South Carolina, wages cannot be garnished for a judgement.
Wikstrom said this limitation isn’t likely to impact construction scam judgement anyway.
“A scammer is not really going to report their wages,” she explained. “They’ll actually have business cards printed with multiple company names on it so that you can’t track them, so to garnish their wages, they don’t report their wages, so it doesn’t work.”
Like the courts, local law enforcement also runs into limitations when assisting victims.
Many police reports state that the reported scam is a “civil matter” and police generally can’t get too involved in those cases.
Kathy Thompson works with the Horry County Police Department’s white-collar division of criminal investigations. She said the distinction between a civil and criminal case depends on if the contractor begins work.
“Criminal is whenever they take the money and then they never come back, then that’s a breach of trust,” she explained.
If a contractor starts any work, the case is considered a civil case.
While police departments are limited in what they can do for civil matters, Thompson said it is still important to file a police report.
“It’s very possible that they’ve done this to other people in the area,” Thompson explained. “It is documented, and it may help someone else from having the same issue so that would be a really good idea, so basically you are helping your neighbor.”
Wikstrom said individuals should also report the scam on the BBB’s scamtracker and write reviews online to help prevent others.
“We want to stop those scammers before they get started,” Wikstrom said.
What to do before hiring a contractor:
- Check out reviews of the company/ individual on the BBB and other sites.
- Check with the state and municipality for a license.
- Ask the contractor for a copy of their insurance and make sure it covers employees and subcontractors.
- Ask or find three references - one new, one old and one from in-between, so you can determine what their work pattern has been like.
- The BBB says never pay more than 20 percent of the project up front. While most contractors require money upfront, officials said never pay the full amount.
- Establish start and end dates for the project.
- The BBB also suggests getting a receipt at the end so the business can’t come back asking for money.