Springtime is coming, and it is a beautiful season in Bethesda and Washington DC. Unfortunately, it is also the season when landscaping, garden maintenance, and home repair scams come into full bloom. In order to avoid being the victim of “woodchucks,” here are some things you should know.
What’s a Woodchuck?
Landscaping, garden maintenance, and home repair scams are not new to Bethesda and the Washington DC area. In fact, these type of scammers been the subject of enough police investigations over the years that they have their own nickname: Woodchucks.
In April of 2009, the Washington Post ran an article in which woodchucks were described as men, often living outside of the area and not licensed to do work in the area, who cruised local neighborhoods in search of elderly women who could be conned into paying thousands of dollars for repairs that were never actually done. In fact, police in northern Virginia reported that woodchucks managed to scam a 78-year-old woman out of more than $130,000 for phony repair services within a few months in 2007.
At the time when the article was written, Montgomery County Police had reportedly not yet had a case of the woodchuck scam, though they had certainly seen their share of one-time contractor scams on the elderly. In a matter of a few years, however, Montgomery County would meet the woodchucks as well.
2016 Scams in Montgomery County
Between March 1 and mid-April, 2016, the Montgomery County Department of Police saw 12 cases of tree and lawn service repair scams. It was enough to prompt them to issue a press release, warning the public of the situation.
In 11 out of the 12 Montgomery County cases during that time frame, the victim was at least 70 years old, the department reported. The woodchuck would come to the victim’s home, explaining that he was doing lawn or tree work for a neighbor, and that he happened to notice a hazardous situation with the victim’s home that needed immediate attention.
The woodchuck is able to gain the trust of the victim very quickly, the department noted. They offer what they describe as a “good deal” to fix the problem right away (though it is often an over-inflated price or the problem is exaggerated), and even say that they conveniently have some extra materials in order to do the work. After that, one or more of the following things happen:
- The scammer collects a deposit for the work and then never returns to actually do the job.
- The scammer accepts payment for the work and then provides a shoddy repair job that has to later be fixed by someone else.
- The scammer personally damages the home so he can “fix” the issue, and often “finds” other issues that also need immediate attention.
- If the homeowner questions the work or refuses to pay for additional services, the woodchuck may then intimidate the victim by threatening to sue them.
Do Woodchucks Really Cause the Damage Themselves?
Sometimes, yes. According to the police department, and as reported by the Washington NBC news affiliate, Christopher Clore was arrested in April, 2016, after having scammed multiple people for phony landscaping, garden maintenance, and home repair services. In one of the cases, he reportedly made a hole in a piece of wood on the one-year-old roof of a 79-year-old woman and told her that a tree limb had caused the damage. He then charged her $2,100 to repair the damage.
His repair of the damage involved covering the hole — which her son says was likely caused by a hammer or hatchet — with an old roof shingle.
How Do Woodchucks & Scammers Find Their Victims?
It’s true that many woodchucks simply drive the neighborhoods, looking for elderly people that they can dupe. However, some of them go even further. According to an article from US News & World Report, woodchucks often ask other people in the neighborhood to help them identify senior citizens who might be able to use their services. They then arrive at the home of their potential victim and state something to the effect of: “Your neighbor suggested that you might be able to use my services.”
How To Hire Without Getting Scammed
According to the police, there are ways to protect yourself against unscrupulous and unlicensed landscaping, garden maintenance, and home repair scams:
- Take your time. Don’t hire someone simply because they came to your door and said the work needed to be done immediately. Don’t let someone who contacted you out of the blue into your home to discuss services. If you know or suspect that you need a repair done, ask for recommendations from family or friends, and get estimates.
- Insist on a written contract that provides a detailed list of materials to be used and the time frame in which the work will be performed. If any changes arise regarding the scope of work, require that those changes be reflected in an amended contract.
- Check the Better Business Bureau’s list of accredited businesses and read the reviews. Check other online reviews from Google, Facebook and Yelp too. Spend a few minutes “Googling” the company and see what’s out there about them and if there are complaints. If you find absolutely NOTHING about a company, that’s a red flag – stay away!
- Home improvement companies must be licensed in Maryland in order to provide work here. You can find out if the company is licensed to perform work in Maryland by calling the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at (240) 777-3636.
Who can you trust?
Trust a company that has been around for several years and who is well known with good reviews. Rasevic has been in business in the greater Washington, DC, area since 1990, providing landscaping services, snow removal, holiday decorating and home construction and remodeling services. Most of our employees have been with us for more than 10 years. We offer quality and experience and strive for 100 percent satisfaction. We won’t knock on your door and offer you services that you haven’t requested, but if you need us, we provide a free consultation and estimates and we are ready to help. For more information, contact us.
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