When high winds, including a mini-tornado, swept through the Northwest suburbs last week, officials in the hardest hit towns -- Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights and Wheeling -- were quick to warn residents to be careful who they hired to fix damage.
Today, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez joined the chorus, announcing her consumer fraud unit has filed a lawsuit accusing a Texas construction company and its agents of bilking thousands of dollars from Northwest suburbanites whose houses were damaged by hail and heavy winds in spring 2010.
Avoiding scamsHere are some tips on how to avoid falling victim to storm chasers. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office has a more extensive list of tips on its website at statesattorney.org/index2/consumeralert_stormchaser01.html.
• Ask for recommendations from utilities, your insurer and people you trust, and for references from the contractor. Contact the references.
• Contact the Better Business Bureau at chicago.bbb.org and obtain a reliability report about a contractor.
• Obtain a lien waiver from the contractor or subcontractor when paying for materials and work.
• Be skeptical of a door-to-door salesperson who claims to have just completed a nearby job.
• Compare the estimates of a number of contractors but don't pick solely on price.
• Verify licenses. General contractors don't have to be licensed, but plumbers and roofers are.
• Ask for proof of insurance coverage.
• Don't rely on oral promises.
• Don't sign with any blank spaces.
• Don't pay for the entire job before the start of work.
• Document problems, taking notes of all meetings and conversations and taking photographs of the work.
• To initiate a complaint with the state's attorney's consumer fraud division, call (312) 603-8700 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
She also reminded homeowners to be on guard against "storm chasers" -- fraudulent or unlicensed contracting companies whose owners and operators target homeowners in communities that have been hard-hit by damaging weather.
"The state's attorney's consumer fraud unit will aggressively enforce our consumer protection laws and hold unscrupulous storm chaser companies who engage in fraud fully accountable," Alvarez said in a news release announcing the suit against Godfather Construction.
Susan Czach, a Des Plaines resident who went on a crusade against Godfather Construction after the company failed to adequately repair her storm damage, said today she was "thrilled" by the action.
"I've been diligently working on this case," said Czach, whose efforts were profiled May 23 in the Daily Herald. "I would like to see them go to jail."
The suit also cites Godfather Construction's owners and operators, Thomas Kamin and Steven Anderson, both of Texas, and Freddie Miles of Indiana.
According to prosecutors, Kamin, Anderson, and Miles are storm chasers who travel to communities that have been hard-hit by storms in order to target the insurance money received by homeowner's to repair severe weather damage.
According to the suit, Godfather contracted to make repairs with six homeowners in Niles, Park Ridge and Des Plaines beginning in April of 2010. All of the homeowners believed they were hiring a reputable and experienced company but in reality, Godfather Construction would typically import unlicensed laborers from out of state to perform the work, which was often incomplete or shoddy.
The suit against Godfather says the company also took advantage of subcontractors, with several crews stopping work and leaving repairs unfinished when they didn't receive payment.
The suit says Godfather collected nearly $60,000 from the victims. Some, including Czach, were able to collect refunds, but only months later after seeking help from authorities.
Also named in the lawsuit is Peter Svaras, president of Svaras Roofing based in McHenry. Svaras entered into a contract with Godfather Construction in April of 2010 whereby he agreed to work for the company, accept profits and register the company as a licensed roofer under his roofing license, prosecutors said. According to prosecutors, Svaras failed to register Godfather so the company was never properly licensed in Illinois, despite the claims that they made to consumers.
A spokeswoman for Svaras told the Daily Herald for May's story that while the two companies had discussed a deal, one was never struck and Svaras name was used without his consent. The owners of Godfather Construction couldn't be located for comment.
The suit seeks to permanently bar Godfather Construction from doing business in Illinois and seeks restitution for victims.