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Home-repair con artists are one hazard of Florida living

On Feb. 5, I was at the edge of the street when a man pulled up in a pickup truck. He said he could see my driveway needed paving and that he had just paved a driveway down the street and had leftover asphalt he had to use up. He told me he'd give me a good price. I told him I wasn't interested, but he managed to talk me into letting him do the job anyway.

A dump truck with one older man and four teenagers arrived. They quickly did the job. I noticed that they never used a roller, and even though I did not park on the driveway until the next day, my car left tread marks on it.

I repeatedly called the number on the card I had. I spoke to the man only once, and he told me he'd be out to fix the problem. He never came and I've never heard from him since. Stanley Harper

Response: We note that you have already contacted the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. It, in turn, has forwarded your complaint to the Department of Consumer Protection in Pinellas County.

We spoke with Sheryl Lord, the director, who said you unfortunately are the victim of a common scam.

The scenario you described is typical: You were approached by someone who offered to do a job on the spot with leftover materials from a "previous" job. The hook? You're offered a good deal, but you have to make up your mind immediately. As you've discovered, the job was poorly done, and your "contractor" has disappeared.

According to John Wood, supervisor of the criminal section of Pinellas County's consumer protection office, these scams are prevalent during our warm winter months when seasonal workers, known as travelers, move into Florida from the North. Upon arrival, they set up an answering service. Anyone calling about poor workmanship, which makes up the majority of the complaints, said Wood, will get the answering service. That can make people think they are dealing with a legitimate business.

Toward the end of the season here, the travelers pack up and move back North. The departure date depends on when the weather warms up. This year, with the flooding in the Midwest, they may be here longer, said Wood.

To protect yourself, keep the following in mind:

Any job costing more than $25 requires a home solicitation sale permit, issued by the clerk of the court. Workers should wear the permit where it can be seen. The first violation of the home solicitation statute is a first-degree misdemeanor and carries a $1,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment. The second violation is a third-degree felony. Each city also has its own rules and regulations.

Any job costing more than $25 also must have a contract with a three-day cooling-off period, during which time you can cancel and get a refund.

Wood advises consumers not to deal with anyone who comes to the door. If you need your driveway repaved, your house painted or your roof fixed, you can find plenty of businesses in the Yellow Pages. Check the local building department to see whether the contractor is licensed. Run the names past the consumer protection agency in your county and Better Business Bureau to find out whether any complaints have been filed. Ask for references.

Wood said that if you find yourself considering an offer from a solicitor, call your local consumer protection agency immediately.

TV ads raise questions

Several friends and I wonder why all those companies that advertise on TV show the price of the product in large figures while the cost of shipping and handling is often almost indiscernible. Why aren't companies required to include the shipping and handling in the listed cost of the product? Also, I thought that orders had to be shipped within 30 days, but several companies state that orders will be sent out in four to six weeks. Charlotte Wilkinson

Response: As long as the company states the shipping and handling charge, it complies with federal law.

Most companies do not refund shipping and handling charges, so it's less confusing in the long run to state it separately. If the shipping and handling charge were included in the cost of the merchandise, you would have no way to judge whether that charge seemed high or not.

The Federal Trade Commission rule on delivery of merchandise states that you must receive the merchandise when the seller says you will. If no delivery date is promised, the seller must ship the merchandise within 30 days of receiving the order. If you don't receive your merchandise shortly after that 30-day period, you may cancel your order and get a refund.

If you have a question for Action, or your attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request for Action. Names will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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