MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One of the most common calls the WREG Problem Solvers get involves contractors who get paid but never finish the job.

A recent arrest drew our attention since law enforcement agencies don’t often hold contractors accountable with charges.

“The majority of it is handled civilly,” said Lt. Kevin Johnson with the Memphis Police Economic Crimes Bureau. “A lot of times what we get is people have a strong civil case but it doesn’t rise to the level of a criminal case.”

Johnson explained why they have trouble enforcing a Tennessee state law making “fraud by a home improvement contractor” a criminal charge. The law has only been on the books for 10 years and the wording is vague. When lawmakers wrote “no substantial portion of the contracted work has been performed,” they didn’t define “substantial.”

The July arrest of Bobby Ellis was an exception, police said. Ellis got paid $35,000 and only did one day of work, making their case clear.

“Luckily most cases we’ve prosecuted have been easier in the aspect that no work was done,” Johnson said.

But officials said they’ve only prosecuted a handful of contractors in the last three years. They’re hoping that could change with public awareness of how the law works.

“Knowing there’s a criminal penalty would definitely help citizens in that fewer people would try to take advantage of people like this,” Johnson said.

Police say the key to protecting yourself and helping them file charges if necessary lies in the contract wording.

Here’s what they said consumers need to know to protect themselves:

  • Contracts should have detailed information of specific work expectations including a timeline. Prosecutors would be able to use this in court to prove a “substantial” amount of the expected work did not get done.
  • Contracts should also include an address for the contractor. The law requires sending a written request for refund.
  • Wait 90 days to call authorities since the contractor has that long to respond.

If you make these changes, you give law enforcement their best shot at helping you out and putting in the motions for an arrest if necessary.

“If they think they’ve been a victim they should reach out to the economic crimes bureau,” Johnson said.

MPD’s economic crimes bureau can be reached at 901-636-3350.

You also have other options, like filing a complaint with your state’s board of contractors or a lawsuit in court.

Police said the charge is effective, as evidenced by them not having any repeat offenders.

Got a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or stacy.jacobson@wreg.com