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News Link • Property Rights

Thou Shalt Not Build in Counter-Economic Fashion

• Sun-Sentinel
A man in a tropical print shirt is buying a foreclosed Cooper City home for his daughter. She stands nearby, in the gutted kitchen, as her dad discusses renovations with a contractor he\'s contacted through online classifieds.

The father writes down the jobs they\'ve negotiated on a sheet of notebook paper. They have just agreed on a price -- when a bedroom door bangs open and two men in black bulletproof vests storm shouting into the kitchen.

"Broward Sheriff\'s Office!"

The contractor - who, it turns out, is unlicensed -- is handcuffed and hauled away.

The Miami man was one of 15 people arrested on Tuesday and Wednesday during an unlicensed contractor sting run by the Sheriff\'s Office and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The home-buying father and daughter actually were undercover BSO deputies. The contractors, who were identified through their classified advertisements and fliers, were contacted by Professional Regulation staff pretending to the be the new property owners, asking for bids on work at the Cooper City house.

Similar operations are being conducted statewide this week, including in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, as part of the state agency\'s quarterly crackdowns on unlicensed workers in the 19 professions it regulates.

"We try to stick to people doing work that could cause safety issues. If you improperly install exterior doors, they could blow in during a hurricane," said Det. Daniel Belyeu, of BSO\'s economic crimes unit.

Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county residents filed 603 complaints with the state about unlicensed construction professionals last year, and 141 complaints about electrical professionals. Regulators expect more as South Florida\'s slumping economy leaves more construction workers unemployed and looking for odd jobs - and more homeowners looking for cut-rate work.

Belyeu, also a certified electrical contractor, played the father and was wired to record his conversations with the contractors. BSO got permission to use a vacant house, which actually is in foreclosure, in the Rock Creek subdivision and rigged the main room with hidden video cameras monitored by deputies secluded in a bathroom.

The unlicensed Miami contractor, and the others arrested, were charged and told to stop doing work until they obtained their licenses. Professional Regulation staff gave them information on how to apply. Police would not name the contractors.

BSO and state officials said the operations have a double purpose: to show construction professionals they need to do work legally or face the consequences, and to warn homeowners about the dangers of using unlicensed tradespeople.

The pitfalls are many, officials say. Unlicensed workers can be poorly trained and usually are uninsured, so consumers could be liable if they are injured on their property. These contractors often have nothing more than a cell phone, so they will be hard to track down if their work is unsatisfactory.

And some of them are criminals who shouldn\'t even be allowed inside the front door, said BSO Sgt. Jay Leiner, of economic crimes. One of the contractors arrested in the Broward sting had a police record including an aggravated battery charge. Deputies discovered illegal prescription painkillers on another.

"You don\'t let someone who is unlicensed drive your car. And your home is worth much more than your car," Leiner said.

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