Phone and internet scams, home improvement projects and car sales and repairs top the list of consumer problems in Sedgwick County.
“What three things do you use every day?” Robert Short, chief attorney for the economic crimes unit with the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, asked rhetorically. “Your phone, your car and your house.”
Phone and internet scams often fall outside the district attorney’s jurisdiction. But the division often warns residents of scams that seem specifically local or that spike during certain times of the year.
Auto and home issues, Short said, “That’s our bread and butter.”
The district attorney’s office returned more than $180,000 to consumers this year, not including money ordered but not yet paid, as of the end of July.
Fines and penalties grow when scams or wrongdoing involve victims who are elderly, disabled, a veteran or direct family members of a veteran or who receive an enhanced set of protections against exploitation.
Foul play often falls into two categories: criminal behavior or violations of the Kansas Consumer Protection Act.
“If I’m a crooked business, I’m going to delve in both areas,” Short said.
For example, a felony theft case was filed against a local landscaping business called Rick’s Tree and Landscape, owned by Ricky Moyer, 30, who took money up front from residents in Derby and west Wichita for tree trimming, landscaping and concrete and construction work without completing any of the work. The victims reported combined losses of more than $18,000. Moyer was ordered on Aug. 22 to pay more than $16,000 to two local homeowners and was placed on five years’ probation.
“Theft is a theft,” said Avery Elofsson, senior assistant district attorney for Sedgwick County, who is responsible for litigation in the Consumer Protection Division. “They’re trying to hide it under a business.”
Another case this year found a Wichita homebuilder, Brett Horth, 44, had defrauded homeowners of $340,000 from not paying subcontractors. Horth’s business was called Dream Life Homes, which built homes in Andover, Pratt, Goddard, Colwich, Garden Plain, Park City, Derby and Wichita.
Elofsson said each situation is viewed through the lens of a “reasonable consumer.”
“You can’t go out and buy a used car and expect it to drive like a Porsche, but you can expect it to drive you to the store and get your kids to school,” he said.
Overall, Elofsson said, “You can’t become a victim unless you open a wallet.
“You do have some responsibilities yourself that the law doesn’t absolve you of.”
In general, consumer protection laws require that:
▪ Businesses tell the truth. They need to disclose problems with an item at time of purchase.
▪ Prices be fair and not grossly exceed the fair market value. Some consumers might buy the same item for more and others for less, but that doesn’t indicate an unfair price.
▪ Items be merchantable and fit. “Everyone understands that a hammer will last several years,” Short said. “It’s a hunk of metal. If it falls apart because you made it and it’s hollow and plastic, then that’s not (merchantable).”
Consumers should know whether they are buying from a person or a business. If you buy something online from an individual, the transaction is not protected under the Consumer Protection Act.
“It is buyer beware,” Elofsson said about person-to-person deals. “The duty is on the buyer to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of stuff like that.”
And any legal recourse would go through civil court, unless the deal involved fraudulent or criminal activity.
But if a car dealership sells cars “by owner” on Craigslist or anywhere else, that is considered deceptive under the Consumer Protection Act.
Consumers can check the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for tips on buying a new or used car, remodeling your home, buying paint, hiring a contractor, rebuilding after weather damage or shopping for windows.
The FTC also offers financial advice on credit, loans, debt management and saving.
Remodeling your home
None of these checklists can guarantee success. But, Short said, these tips can help mitigate some risks.
“If you’ve done your homework, the risk is going to be a lot lower,” Elofsson said.
▪ Check state and local licensing and permitting registries with the attorney general’s office and the Wichita Area Builders Association, but keep in mind not all contractors have licensing or registration agencies.
▪ Make sure the contractor has insurance.
▪ Find out whether a project requires a permit from Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Building and Construction or the county where you live. Some cities also have permit departments, but those vary among municipalities.
▪ Be wary if the contractor asks you to pay a lot of money up front for a project – “if this contractor is so underfunded that he can’t even start a job without your money, that could be a red flag.” Some up-front money for materials is routine.
▪ Put the contract in writing and keep evidence of all financial transactions. And establish beforehand how a project will be paid for – in full, in installments or some at the beginning and at the end.
▪ Take photos of a project as it goes along, and document progress.
▪ Search the contractor’s name online. See whether news stories arise or whether prior prosecutions come up.
▪ Check whether the business is listed by any local or national associations, including the Wichita Independent Business Association and the Better Business Bureau.
▪ Rely on what others say about the contractor, and ask for references from past customers.
▪ Check online review sites, such as Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor or Zillow.
▪ Use common sense. “If this is too good to be true, it might be,” Elofsson said.
Buying a used car
▪ Research the vehicle – sites such as Carfax offer vehicle history, including flood damage, title information, the number of owners, accident history and type of use if owned commercially. The Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System offers information about titles, odometer data and certain damage history. And the National Insurance Crime Bureau has a free database that includes flood damage and other information.
▪ Consider having a mechanic look at a vehicle before buying it.
▪ Check recalls on the vehicle on Recalls.gov, a joint site among six federal agencies for recalls on vehicles, boats, food, medicine, cosmetics, environmental products and other consumer products. People can also enter a car’s vehicle identification number at Safercar.gov, which offers recall information by VIN, or consumers can call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236.
▪ Compare pricing online or at other dealerships for similar mileage of the same make and model.