ST. PETERSBURG — The air-conditioning system wasn't working, but it wasn't exactly broken either.
Police had removed the AAA batteries from the thermostat, rendering it temporarily useless. The empty house heated up as undercover investigators waited for contractor after contractor — all solicited on Craigslist — to bid on different projects. There were plumbers and electricians, kitchen renovators and, of course, a refrigeration specialist .
Back at the St. Petersburg Police Department, Detective Brian Bilbrey watched live video feeds as an AC guy rolled up to the house. The contractor chatted with a volunteer posing as the homeowner then went to assess the damage.
About $3,000, he said, though he could knock off a couple of hundred if the homeowner didn't want a permit.
A few thousand dollars for a handful of batteries. Bilbrey chuckled. "That's good stuff," he said.
But people like that AC guy, who was wanted on a warrant for unlicensed contracting in another county, are a serious problem, authorities say. They do shoddy work and rip off vulnerable homeowners.
Investigators in Pinellas and Hillsborough have been tightening the clamp on unlicensed contractors in recent years. St. Petersburg police's latest sting resulted in arrests of nine suspects as of early Wednesday afternoon. They expected to bring more suspects in over the next few days.
"A lot of people will argue that these guys are just trying to make a living, but they're not," Bilbrey said. "They're trying to make a living at the expense of other people."
• • •
Most contractors are required to obtain a license under Florida law: roofers, pool excavators, sheet metal workers on down to plumbers and AC specialists.
"Unlicensed people are allowed to mow lawns and pick up trash, do some pressure washing. Other than that, most work you have done on a house or a commercial project requires a license," said Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.
Small fees and exams are often requirements for securing a license.
"Even though construction doesn't require a Ph.D., it's a very detailed business," said Doug King, a contractor and vice president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "It involves a lot of moving parts. It involves the largest investment of your lifetime for a lot of people."
Sometimes contractors don't know they need a license, Bilbrey said, but more often they are either lazy or intentionally cutting corners. On first offense, unlicensed contracting is a misdemeanor. Re-offend, and the subsequent violations are felonies.
But unlicensed contractors are frequently guilty of felony insurance fraud, too, because they fail to obtain workers' compensation policies. In those cases, Bilbrey said, homeowners assume massive risk: If uninsured contractors get hurt while working on houses, whoever hired them may have to pay the medical bills.
"They don't care that they're breaking a law, and they're just out there to make a buck quick," King said.
Unlicensed contractors post low bids, he said, undercutting certified professionals and doing fast, sloppy work. In some cases they take advance payment and never complete a job.
"Roofing, for example, they'll come in and take a very large partial down payment then strip the roof, all the shingles off, then never come back to get the roof back up," Bilbrey said.
He expects unlicensed contracting to become even more prevalent as the economy recovers and people are able to afford home renovations. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has a Construction Fraud Unit that investigated more than 100 criminal cases last year.
King's group, known as NARI, earlier this month asked the Attorney General's Office in Tallahassee to explore an advertising campaign educating homeowners. The simplest lesson: Verify the contractor's license before hiring.
• • •
When Bilbrey and other detectives pulled over Ty Morris, of Morris Salt Life Construction on Tuesday, he appeared surprised.
In a Craigslist ad, Morris Salt Life boasted "20 years experience on every square inch" of a home, along with "fair and reasonable" prices.
Contractor's license? "I didn't know there was no such thing," Morris said. As the officers put him in handcuffs and steered him toward an unmarked cruiser, Morris, 41, said he moved to Florida only a year ago. "I'm new to the state."
Bilbrey hopes the St. Petersburg sting will serve as a warning to swindlers around the county.
"We want them to become right, go get their license," he said. "Get right with the law."
As of late Wednesday afternoon, those facing charges in the St. Petersburg sting were:
• Ty Miles Morris, 41, of Largo
• Gregory Alan Dearinger, 55, of Riverview
• Javier Morales, 40, of Northport
• Chad Alves, 41, of Dunedin
• Joseph Darocha, 47, of Clearwater
• Richard Alan LeMaster, 54, of St. Petersburg
• Robert Snyder, 49, of Dunedin
• David Braverman, 65, of Safety Harbor
• Alexander Grenat, 23, of St. Petersburg
• Jason Bailey, 35, of Pinellas Park
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727)893-8804.