Attorney General's consumer protection lawsuit alleges repeated deceptions & unfair practices
(DES MOINES, Iowa) A state judge this week barred a Johnson County contractor from future contracting and home repair work, ruling the contractor repeatedly violated consumer fraud laws.
Polk County District Judge Eliza Ovrom issued a permanent injunction against Clay Lowell Willie, 73, of Oxford, after Attorney General Tom Miller alleged that Willie engaged in a series of deceptions and unfair practices connected to home repair and contracting work. The judge also ordered Willie to reimburse four consumers a total of more than $12,000.
Willie, who has used several aliases and at least nine business names, repeatedly violated Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act and Door-to-Door Sales Act, according to the ruling.
In a lawsuit filed last week, the Consumer Protection Division alleged that Willie accepted payment and failed to deliver materials and services, failed to issue refunds, failed to meet appropriate standards and building codes, and, in some cases, caused physical damage to consumers’ residences due to abandoned projects.
Willie, according to the lawsuit, altered his name and changed business names in person and in advertisements, which prevented consumers from checking his background or locating him when he failed to perform work. Court records show that Willie has been convicted of felony theft charges, and has been ordered to pay judgments in more than three dozen civil cases.
Consumers also could not research Willie’s business background, the lawsuit added, because Willie failed to properly register his businesses with government agencies. Willie did not register with the state as a contractor, and did not register business names as “trade names” with county recorders for the counties in which he did business, as the law requires in both cases. He also did not incorporate his business and register with the Iowa Secretary of State.
The lawsuit alleged that Willie falsely claimed that he was a member of the Better Business Bureau (BBB). In advertisements, Willie claimed he had a “BBB rating A+,” which, according to the lawsuit, occurred because Willie did not disclose to the BBB the other names under which he had done business and failed to perform on home repair or contractor services contracts.
Willie, the lawsuit further alleged, failed to properly disclose consumers’ rights to cancel contracts and obtain refunds, and failed to honor legally valid cancellations and refunds.
The consent judgment order subjects Willie to contempt charges and civil penalties of up to $5,000 per day in if he violates the order.
Tips to finding a good contractor and avoiding home repair scams and disputes:
- Avoid the high pressure pitch. If you’re feeling pressured to sign a contract, agree to a service or buy something you hadn’t planned on buying, say NO to the seller.
- Check out and interview contractors before you sign a contract or pay any money. Request local references and contact them!
- Check on complaints with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division (515-281-5926, or 888-777-4590) and check with the Better Business Bureau. Check to see if a contractor has been sued by unsatisfied customers (or sued them) -- go to www.iowacourts.state.ia.us. Check on a contractor’s registration and bonding (which doesn’t guarantee quality of work) at www.iowaworkforce.org/labor. Ask for a copy of the contractor's liability insurance certificate. Be wary of a person or company not listed in the local telephone directory.
- Get several written estimates, choose the best, and get a contract in writing (don’t forget to read it!).
- Before work begins, agree on a written contract detailing terms including the work to be done, the brand and/or the specifications of the materials to be used, the price, who is responsible for permits, and that all change orders must be in writing. Put start and completion dates in writing, and the remedies if the contractor fails to meet them. (Example: the contract could be nullified if the contractor doesn't start on time.)
- If you’re filing an insurance claim to cover the costs of damages, negotiate the details with your insurance company directly and not through a contractor. It’s usually safer and a better deal to obtain financing through your local bank or credit union, rather than a contractor.
- If you sign a contract somewhere other than the contractor's regular place of business, such as at your home, you have three business days to cancel the contract without penalty. The seller must provide you a written notice in duplicate of your right to cancel.
- Avoid paying large sums or the entire job up-front. If you need to make a partial advance payment for materials, make your check out to the supplier and the contractor. Insist on a "mechanic's lien waiver" in case the contractor fails to pay others for materials or labor.
- To cancel a sale, sign and date one copy of the cancellation form and mail it to the address given for cancellation. Make sure that the envelope is postmarked by midnight of the third business day following the purchase, or hand-deliver the notice. (Weekends and holidays do not count as business days.) A certified letter is proof of when you mailed your request, and a signed receipt is proof if you hand-delivered your notice.
- Watch for scams at your doorstep, where someone shows up and claims your driveway needs repaving, or your house needs new shingles – and they “just happen to have materials left over” at a big discount. Say no to a deal that is based on “extra materials,” someone demanding an immediate decision, or a contractor who only accepts cash.
- If you used a credit card for your purchase, you can contact your credit card company and challenge the charge within 60 days after the date the first bill was mailed to you. Keep in mind that a debit card offers you fewer protections than a credit card.
- Contact local law enforcement officials and the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division if you are victimized by a door-to-door scam or you do not receive a refund you requested.