Even as she fell ill with colon cancer, Shirley A. Campolieto took advantage of the Washington area's red-hot housing market. She wanted more space to entertain her grandchildren, so she obtained a home equity loan and planned an addition to her Fairfax City house.
A contractor who wanted the job, Craig J. Oliver, showed up just before Campolieto entered the hospital for surgery. He pushed her to make a decision, she said, but she wasn't ready.
Three days after she left the hospital, barely able to walk, Oliver came back. "He said, 'Shirley, just think, you'll be able to look out the window and watch the construction being done when you're recovering from cancer," Campolieto recalled in an interview yesterday. "I got excited about that, so I signed. He was so slick. He would hug you, kiss you, bring his wife over. I fell for Craig Oliver."
So did 67 other homeowners in the Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs, according to federal prosecutors and Oliver's own admission. And he did just a quarter of the work he promised Campolieto, collecting $71,000 of the $80,000 contract.
It was one of what authorities said is a growing number of home-improvement scams fueled by the housing market. Complaints about the home remodeling contracting industry filed with the Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington nearly doubled from 2003 to 2004, rising from 1,886 to 3,603. In 2002, the bureau received 1,300 such complaints.
Edward Johnson, the bureau's president and chief executive, attributed the jump to the increasing numbers of homeowners remodeling because rising home prices have given them enough equity to take out second mortgages or lines of credit.
He encouraged homeowners to carefully check out contractors by calling the bureau and making sure they are licensed with the state or various professional associations. Oliver, he added, has an "unsatisfactory" rating with the bureau.
More than 20 of Oliver's victims were there Monday when he pleaded guilty to wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The scheme netted the 52-year-old Alexandria resident more than $2.5 million, prosecutors said.
Using two main home renovation companies and a series of shell corporations designed to hide his profits, Oliver marketed his services from a kiosk at Fair Oaks Mall, according to court documents. Falsely claiming that he had a contractor's license in Virginia, he would complete the minimum amount of work to get paid and then abandon his projects, prosecutors said.
Victims lost tens of thousands of dollars and in some instances had to pay to correct work that was shoddily done, prosecutors said. Campolieto, for example, said much of the work Oliver did on her house must be redone.
Oliver, who was released on $150,000 bond after his plea, could not be located, and his attorney did not return a call late yesterday afternoon.
"All he did was rob [people] of their savings," said U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, who encouraged homeowners who feel they were defrauded by Oliver or any other contractor to contact authorities.
Oliver's two main businesses were Dominion Building and Construction Corp. and Potomac Building Corp., both incorporated in August 2002 and run out of his Alexandria home, court documents said. He contracted with homeowners for more than $5.9 million worth of work and collected more than $4 million in payments overall. One victim, a South Riding man, hired Oliver for a $34,743 basement renovation that was never started.
Victims ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies and included lawyers, doctors and blue-collar workers, prosecutors said. Of the 68 victims cited in court documents, 57 were from Northern Virginia, the majority in Fairfax County but also Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties. The 11 other victims were in Maryland.
Oliver faces as much as 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 20. He also agreed to pay full restitution to the 68 homeowners who were defrauded.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.