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Victims of fraud pursue contractors

Few things anger homeowners more than contractors who take them for thousands of dollars and mess up the work.

And don't ask the small-business owners about the scams that cost them their companies.

Fraud victims expect that if they alert law enforcement to the bum that took them, he'll be arrested. Often, it doesn't happen.

The disputes usually involve too much he-said, she-said for law enforcement to wade through, and victims are told the dreaded, "It's a civil matter."

This declaration is the end of the line for most fraud victims. Pursuing a case in civil court is time-consuming, expensive, a hassle. Most people would rather just get on with their lives.

Debbie Rowe and Scott Plantz are not most people.

They don't know each other; their cases are unrelated. But they share a kindred spirit that no matter what it takes, they are not giving up until the person they say wronged them gets his.

Rowe says a contractor ruined her home addition and cost her a fortune. Plantz says a con man took his business for $59,000 with the promise to build a Web site for his company.

Rowe and Plantz refused to accept, "It's a civil matter." They mined public documents to find other victims, so they could show authorities a pattern of fraud.

"I'll fight to the death if I know I'm right," said Rowe, 55, who has had various jobs including painting and trying to start her own bakery business. "I think God put me on this earth to help people."

Added Plantz, an emergency medicine physician: "You don't want this to happen to someone else. It's the simple reality of civic duty."

• • •

Rowe's tale began almost four years ago, when she wanted an addition to her St. Petersburg home for her elderly mother.

She hired contractor Jack B. Quick. And like the nursery rhyme character, the contractor may have burned himself playing with fire.

Rowe gave Quick about $30,000 for a project the contractor said would cost $95,000. After repeated delays that left her home open to the elements, she could not get satisfaction.

She hired other contractors to repair and finish parts of the job, until she ran out of money to finish the work or to sue Quick.

Rowe complained to county and state licensing agencies. But rather than investigate, the county challenged her accusations. The state contracting licensing board found no cause for action against Quick.

She took matters into her own hands. To find other potential victims, she researched building permits under Quick's name. She found other complaints with consumer protection agencies. She amassed a file on Quick that filled large notebook binders.

"We don't have any protection," Rowe said.

That's how other homeowners feel after suffering an unscrupulous contractor. But by pressing such agencies as the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services as well as the Fourth Estate, Rowe finally earned herself the pleasure of Quick being arrested on grand theft charges.

It took two years from the time Rowe launched her campaign until Quick was picked up and accused of taking money without intending to complete contracted work.

A conviction won't help Rowe's pocketbook. But she says that's beside the point. "We're not going to get any money. It's about putting a stop to at least one (problem) contractor."

• • •

Plantz does not expect any money, either. His business lost $59,000 on a Web site development contract.

After contractor John P. Heintz failed to meet Plantz's vision for a Web site that would provide online training for nurses, the doctor filed a fraud complaint with St. Pete Beach police.

But the pace of the investigation and what he viewed as a lack of interest only angered the doctor. He hired an investigator, researched court records, searched the Internet.

After spending thousands of dollars, Plantz discovered Heintz had left a trail of criminal charges, bankruptcies and lawsuits from Illinois to Michigan to Florida. Other clients told Plantz how they were taken by Heintz.

Finally, Plantz questioned investigators for the State Attorney's Office why Heintz was on the street and not in prison.

"It takes perseverance to build a company," Plantz said. "It can be destroyed in a second. … You take away the American dream. That's what this guy does."

Plantz's persistence has prompted investigations into Heintz's activities.

Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe said it isn't always clear if a case is civil or criminal.

"Bad business, that's a civil matter. Did they take the advance with no intent to complete the job? That's a criminal matter. Were there a string of victims all in the same lurch?"

Even if a person committed fraud before doesn't mean a complaint is criminal, McCabe said.

"Just because someone has a long history, that doesn't mean you can go arrest him,'' he said, acknowledging that a long history of troublesome activity might suggest that a serious investigation is in order.

It's all about intent, which is at the heart of whether the complaint is bad business or fraud.

"You've got to prove that intent," said Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency.

Law enforcement rarely brings charges against licensed contractors if "they lifted a finger," Jackson said. "It's frustrating. … In that case, you're on your own."

"Whenever they just don't want to do stuff, that's the standard line, 'it's a civil matter,' " said Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victims Bar Association, a Washington, D.C., group that assists lawyers and victims.

Dion said law enforcement shouldn't just dismiss complaints as merely civil.

"The first thing is, it's never a question of is, 'Is it civil or is it criminal?' " Dion said. "The answer is, it is both. It is never mutually exclusive. What you will hear from law enforcement is that it is a 'bottomless pit.' "

Why should anyone take on such causes?

Plantz says it's a matter of trying to protect future victims.

"What makes people want to serve on the PTA? What makes soldiers go to war and lose an arm or leg?" Plantz said. "If people are willing to do that for us, this is the least we can do."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Victims of fraud pursue contractors 10/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 5:00pm]
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