Katrina aid may tempt swindlers

GULFPORT, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina battered Raquel Romero’s home, but she figures the house took a worse beating from the contractor she hired to repair the damage.

The contractor tore off her damaged roof and left her Long Beach home exposed to the elements for several days. Rainwater caked her kitchen and laundry room in sludge and destroyed belongings that survived Katrina.

The contractor built Romero a new roof, but Romero says it was so poorly done she had to hire someone else to replace it. And the first contractor refused to refund any of the $20,000 she paid him.

“The contractor caused more damage than the storm did,” she says.

Finding an honest, readily available contractor is a challenge these days on the Gulf Coast, where last year’s epic storm demolished tens of thousands of homes. With most reputable contractors booked for months, con artists are filling the void and preying on desperate homeowners, law enforcement officials say.

To date, home-repair rip-offs have accounted for only a modest share of the hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud that followed in Katrina’s wake. But authorities expect the problem to grow worse as billions in federal grant money starts to flow to homeowners in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Hunting unscrupulous contractors is Ron Werby’s job. He went to work in July as an investigator for the sheriff’s department in Mississippi’s Harrison County, weeks after retiring from the FBI’s joint terrorism task force.

“These are terrorists, too,” Werby said of scammers posing as legitimate contractors. “They’re terrorizing old people. A lot of them are vulnerable people who are desperate and will take anybody to do the work.”

One of the first cases Werby investigated was Romero’s. She filed a complaint against the contractor, and a judge later issued an arrest warrant charging him with home-repair fraud. The contractor is one of dozens charged with defrauding homeowners since Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.

Some contractors are brazen con artists; others are well-intentioned business owners who promise more than they can deliver, Werby said. “They might have been able to do small jobs,” he said, “but then they come down here and get greedy and get in over their heads.”

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