Police and Prosecutors Warn of Home-Repair Scams

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

It starts with trimming a tree. Then maybe a gutter needs fixing, or a chimney repairing. And within weeks, more than $100,000 is gone.

Police call them "woodchucks," men who cruise the older neighborhoods of Northern Virginia looking for elderly women living alone who can be conned or manipulated or intimidated into paying ridiculous sums for little or no work. In Fairfax County, police estimate that 500 people a year are victimized by unlicensed contractors who come back day after day, demanding $7,000 to fix a leaky sink or $3,000 to fill some shallow holes in the back yard.

"I was so taken for a ride," said a Falls Church woman, 64, who did not want to be identified out of fear. She paid about $140,000 in slightly more than two months to a crew of men from Culpeper County, where many of the woodchucks live, for barely noticeable repairs. "I was very naive."

Police in Northern Virginia said the scammers cruise through more established neighborhoods, ones with big trees, fewer children and maybe more slightly declining houses. They look for older sedans, such as Cadillacs or Crown Victorias, with handicapped license plates or hang tags. No SUVs or child seats.

The scheme often starts with a legitimate job, possibly performed well, such as trimming tree limbs, said Detective Michael Cole of the Fairfax financial crimes unit. And, Cole noted, if a homeowner agrees to pay an outrageous fee for a service, there's no crime as long as the service is performed.

It's often hard for police to document what work was done, and elderly homeowners can't climb a roof to confirm work, or can't remember what was agreed to and what wasn't, Cole said. Many don't report the crime, out of embarrassment or fear.

The age of the victims sometimes presents a problem to police and a boon to the criminals, because the victims might not remember how much money they paid or what services they agreed to pay for. Checks are made out to different people, and sometimes the woodchucks drive the victim to the bank and she cashes checks for them, police said.

Maryland authorities said they have seen different frauds involving senior citizens. Montgomery County police said they had not seen the particular woodchuck scam, but they have noted that one-time contractor schemes such as driveway resurfacing, door-to-door soliciting and phony utility workers tend to target the elderly.

In Prince George's County, police said they have seen occasional scams with elderly victims, and police and community officials meet regularly with senior citizen groups to apprise them of potential frauds or threats. District police could not comment Friday.

Police in Northern Virginia have started targeting the scammers, and last week the accused leader of one crew pleaded guilty in Fairfax Circuit Court to defrauding a 78-year-old Springfield area woman. Dwayne Wharton, 32, of Culpeper agreed to repay the woman $30,500, but prosecutors said he and his co-workers extracted about $130,000 from her in a few months in fall 2007.

Wharton's attorney, Jerry Phillips, said the complaints made against Wharton were merely civil disputes over the quality of work done. "I can present just as many satisfied customers as they can unsatisfied customers," Phillips said.

The day before his plea, Wharton was arrested again in Vienna. He was paid for repairing an elderly woman's roof, but Sgt. J.C. Wickes of the Vienna police showed photos of roof shingles that still had moss and mold on them. Phillips said Wharton "totally disputes that."

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