County fraud task force to monitor Sandy rebuilding

Prosecutor, FBI, state agencies to investigate, prosecute fraudulent contractors

Staff Writer

 Freeholders John Curley (l-r) and Serena DiMaso listen as acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni announces the new Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force at a press conference on Feb. 6. The multi-agency program will help protect storm-impacted residents from unscrupulous contractors.  KEITH HEUMILLER Freeholders John Curley (l-r) and Serena DiMaso listen as acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni announces the new Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force at a press conference on Feb. 6. The multi-agency program will help protect storm-impacted residents from unscrupulous contractors. KEITH HEUMILLER Con men and fraudulent contractors hoping to cash in on the post-Sandy rush to rebuild are in for a rough road, according to local, state and federal officials.

The new Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force, unveiled during a press conference in Freehold on Feb. 6, will coordinate the efforts of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) and others, along with state and federal agencies including the FBI and the Office of the Attorney General, to deter and respond to complaints of malicious, deceptive or irresponsible contractors in the months and years ahead.

“History has shown unscrupulous contractors are drawn to devastated areas. This is why we have to act now,” said acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni.

“As soon as the lights went back on in this office and across the county, my office began a plan to try to establish something to help citizens as they work toward rebuilding their lives. We needed to get out in front of this.”

The goal of the task force, according to Gramiccioni and the nearly dozen other officials who appeared before the media last week, is to provide a “one-stop shop” for residents who are just now receiving insurance or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disbursements and are turning to private companies for new construction or home repairs.

Eric Kanefsky, acting director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs (NJDCA), said the conditions are ripe for malfeasance.

“As history has shown us, there will be those who will unlawfully profiteer off the misery and devastation that this storm has brought to the state,” he said, explaining that the county task force will be working in conjunction with New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa’s statewide consumer protection group to investigate and prosecute criminal violations that arise from residents’ complaints.

“This will ensure that the full weight of New Jersey’s law will be available to protect our citizens as they repair their homes and rebuild their lives.”

The task force, which recently opened a branch office at the Bayshore Activity Center, 719 Port Monmouth Road in Port Monmouth, is accepting complaints via phone or email. Residents with concerns can either call the toll-free hotline at 855-726-3939 or visit the website, where they will be asked to fill out a complaint intake form describing any issues they have experienced, Gramiccioni said. Respondents also will be asked to provide supporting documentation, such as receipts, contracts, invoices, photos and correspondence, to back up their claim and provide authorities with as much investigative material as possible.

In addition to following up on and potentially prosecuting claims, the task force has also been formed with the goal of preventing fraud and deception from occurring in the first place.

Informational materials and resources sponsored by the task force, including a five-page booklet detailing warning signs and best practices for homeowners preparing to rebuild, are being disseminated to municipalities throughout the county, Gramiccioni said, and online resources such as the DCA’s website are available to residents seeking information or previous complaints regarding a specific contractor.

While a number of Monmouth County residents — including some of the hundreds of impacted homeowners who attended a state-sponsored informational session in Union Beach on Feb. 5 — say they don’t have the time or the resources to conduct exhaustive market searches or choose topof the-line contractors as they try to get back into their homes quickly, Gramiccioni said the task force’s resources should help streamline the process.

He acknowledged, however, that cashor time-strapped homeowners might be targeted by predatory contractors who offer “too good to be true” deals and stressed that it is easier to avoid such scams in advance than to rectify them afterward.

“There will be an understandably human interest in trying to move this along as quickly as possible. … so we are trying to arm people with as much information as possible so people can make the most well-informed decision,” he said.

“Once you sign the contract, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can help after the fact,” he added. “We’ll try, but the best time to make smart decisions is before.”

Gramiccioni said that, historically, nearly 80 percent of the reported contractor complaints in post-storm events turn out to be regulatory or civil issues, resolved without formal criminal charges. The remaining 20 percent, he said, will be pursued aggressively and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Any of the more than 1,000 out-ofstate contractors currently registered to help rebuild the state who attempt to capitalize on local hardship, he said, may be up for federal charges as well.

Daniel McKenna, senior supervisory resident agent with the Red Bank office of the FBI, said after the conference that contractors and individuals who attempt to use FEMA or other government funds in a fraudulent matter will not escape with a slap on the wrist.

“We’ll be diligently looking and working with the state to identify possible frauds that rise to the federal level, where we’ll be able to apply the federal prosecution laws to the fullest extent,” he said, adding that contractors engaged in major conspiracies to defraud could be open to federal charges as well.

“The United States Attorney’s Office is committed, along with the local Red Bank office of the FBI, to review these cases with the task force, and we’ll make those determinations on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Gramiccioni said that because the task force had just been created, specific details on suspected fraud cases or complaints filed by residents are not yet available. Any charges or convictions that arise out of the task force will be highly publicized, he added, to deter any future attempts.

Freeholder Deputy Director Serena Di- Maso and Freeholder Lillian Burry also spoke during the conference, pledging every county resource — including the Sheriff’s Office and the DCA — to Gramiccioni and the task force.

Burry, county government liaison to the DCA, said the department successfully returned $1 million to consumers last year, following up on complaints filed by Monmouth County residents. The DCA’s consumer affairs line — 732-431-7900 — will be open to residents seeking information on particular contractors before they decide to sign a contract, she said.

“Remember, once you have signed the contract, you have a three-day cooling-off period in which to change your mind if that were the case,” she added. “Your contract must be in writing, and it should include all the details like materials that would be used, the style numbers, any warranty information.”

Burry said homeowners should ensure any contractor they contemplate working with has all the appropriate permits and registrations and remain wary of red flags such as a large initial payment or a requirement to pay in cash. Other tips, including how to spot a fraudulent charity organization, are contained in the task force pamphlet and on the Sandy fraud website.

DiMaso said that while many contractors working in the state are honest, valuable community members, the task force will work to ensure that the rest stay far away from Monmouth County.

“We will have a welcome mat out at our doorstep for any legitimate contractor looking to do work here,” she said. “But this is fair warning to anyone with the wrong idea. Monmouth County is not the place for scam artists or con men to do business. We’re putting the stop sign up now. Don’t bother.”