Pennsylvania has strict rules for contractors who perform home improvement jobs and the people who solicit homeowners to enter into home improvement contracts. It’s common sense that when someone fails to complete agreed-upon work that they might be sued in a civil court for breach of contract. However, in Pennsylvania, if the homeowner believes that you intentionally didn’t finish the job and kept their money, you might find yourself getting charged with a crime.
Home improvement fraud is a serious criminal charge in Pennsylvania. It can be a misdemeanor or felony, but either way, a conviction can lead to a sentence of years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines, as well as the revocation of your certificate of registration as a contractor. However, the situation may not be as clear as a homeowner or prosecutor believes, and an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer may be able to help you fight the charge. With the help of a defense lawyer, you may be able to get your charge dismissed or reduced, and avoid some of the harsh consequences of a conviction. A fraud attorney at Worgul, Sarna & Ness can help.
Defining Home Improvement Fraud
Under the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, 73 P.S. § 517.8, you may be charged with home improvement fraud if you, with intent to defraud or injure someone, do any of the following:
- Use a false or misleading statement to convince someone to enter into an agreement for home improvement services or materials, or to agree to pay a higher price than previously agreed
- Get paid in advance for any home improvement work or materials, and then don’t do the work and don’t refund the money
- When selling home improvement services or materials, misrepresent or hide your name, the contractor’s name, the contractor’s address, or other identifying information
- Cause damage to someone’s property with the intent of trying to convince them to contract for home improvement work or materials
- Misrepresent yourself as a government or public utility employee with the intent of trying to convince someone to contract for home improvement work or materials
- Misrepresent an item for the job as a special order or misrepresent the cost of the item as a special order cost
- Change a home improvement contract, mortgage, promissory note, or other document related to selling home improvement work without the consumer’s consent
- Publish false or deceptive advertising, either directly or indirectly
Penalties for a Home Improvement Fraud Conviction
Home improvement fraud can be a misdemeanor crime, or it can be a felony, depending on the dollar value of the contract or payment involved. When a contract or payment is less than $2,000, the offense is charged as a misdemeanor. When the amount exceeds $2,000, it’s charged as a felony. The grade of misdemeanor or felony depends on the nature of the alleged home improvement fraud, whether you have prior offenses, and whether the alleged victim is 60 years old or older.
When you’re accused of not doing the work and not refunding the money when you were paid in advance, that’s a first-degree misdemeanor when the payment made was $2,000 or less, and a third-degree felony when the payment was more than $2,000. A first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. A third-degree felony is punishable by up to 7 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
When the victim is age 60 or older, the offense is one grade higher. That means that an offense that would be a first-degree misdemeanor becomes a third-degree felony, and a third-degree felony becomes a second-degree felony. A second-degree felony is punishable with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Anytime you have a prior conviction for home improvement fraud, the offense is a second-degree felony regardless of the dollar amount involved and regardless of the age of the victim.
Under 73 P.S. § 517.8, amounts may be aggregated in order to grade the offense when they are connected to “one scheme or course of conduct.” So if you were going door-to-door to sell home improvement work and are charged with misrepresenting your name to five homeowners on the same block, even though each agreement is for less than $2,000, a prosecutor can add those up so that you get charged with a felony instead of multiple misdemeanors.
Additional Consequences for a Home Improvement Fraud Conviction
When you are convicted of home improvement fraud, a court may revoke or suspend your certificate of registration. You can petition for reinstatement after 5 years, but that may prevent you from working in your profession for that time period. With a permanent criminal record following a conviction, you may find it challenging to find other work, since many employers are reluctant to hire someone with a conviction, especially for a fraud-related offense.
A conviction also may affect your ability to rent an apartment when a criminal conviction shows up on the background check for your rental application. If you’re not a United States citizen, a conviction may affect your ability to get an immigration visa or a green card, particularly if it’s a felony.
Possible Defenses to a Home Improvement Fraud Charge From a Pittsburgh Contractor Fraud Attorney
In order to convict you, a prosecutor has to prove that your actions were intentional — for example, that you knowingly misrepresented yourself to trick a homeowner into a home improvement contract, or knowingly failed to return a payment when you failed to complete the agreed-upon work. Intent can be difficult to prove, and sometimes what a homeowner or prosecutor perceives as your intentional actions may have been an accident or a misunderstanding. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will listen to your side of the story and find the facts and evidence that may help you get the desired outcome.
If you just didn’t know that the payment hadn’t been returned, you may have a defense to the case. Generally, if you didn’t knowingly misrepresent or deceive the homeowner, or had no intention to defraud the homeowner, your Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer may be able to negotiate with prosecutors or present an argument to a court that may get your charge dismissed or your penalties reduced.
Contact Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC today to speak with a Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer who can learn the details of your case and ensure that your rights and future are protected. We are available 24/7 at (412) 281-2146.