In the Spring of 2020, a news story broke that several families in Pennsylvania fell victim to alleged home improvement fraud. The Bucks County District Attorney said a local contractor, Shawn Timothy Nicola, previously Shawn Gerety, operating as BuildTREND LLC, is accused of committing more than $500,000 in fraud. He has been charged with numerous counts of theft by deception, receiving stolen property, deceptive business practices, intent to defraud, and receiving advanced payment for services then failing to perform.

While Nicola and several other contractors in the area might be examples of blatant fraud, other contractors can become overwhelmed, encounter setbacks, and make simple mistakes. You should pay close attention to how these cases proceed. Doing everything above board, including when to accept funds and refund clients, will keep you out of trouble.

If you are a contractor and you find yourself facing fraud or theft accusation, take them seriously and call an attorney. Reach out to Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410 to schedule a free consultation with Michael J. Skinner, an experienced criminal defense attorney in Chester, Lancaster, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties.

What Is Theft by Deception?

Everyone knows what stealing is—taking and keeping something that isn’t rightfully yours. But a lot of situations are more complicated than typical shoplifting or burglary.

As a contractor, if you aren’t aware of Pennsylvania theft laws, you could find yourself in unexpected trouble. An owner could accuse you of acquiring something through an omission, exaggeration, or outright lie, and an aggressive prosecutor could charge you with theft by deception.

Under Pennsylvania’s Consolidated Statutes §3922, it is illegal to intentionally obtain or withhold property from another by deception. What does this really mean?

The law holds you responsible for deception if you intentionally:

  1. Give or back up a false impression;
  2. Prevent someone from getting information that would affect their impression of a transaction or decision;
  3. Fail to correct a false impression, which you previously gave or reinforced, or which you know is influencing the other person with whom you have a confidential or fiduciary relationship with.

This applies to contractors if deception influenced a prospective client’s decision to hire you and how much a prospective client pays. You can also be charged if a lie or omission gives you a financial gain that you aren’t lawfully entitled to.

When Contractors Face Theft by Deception Charges

As a commercial or residential contractor, you need to be honest with clients about your work. You must be honest about which renovations you can or can’t do successfully, how long the work will take, your availability, the cost of materials and labor, and your insurance coverage.

If you accept upfront payment and periodic payments, then you must begin and continue the work within a reasonable amount of time, or the dates set out in the contract.

If you intentionally induce a homeowner to pay you, and then you never begin the work, or you begin the work, stop, and never return, then you could face criminal charges. The prosecutor will allege that you lied when you said you’d perform certain work to run off with the cash.

Penalties for Theft by Deception

The penalty depends on the value of the money or property you allegedly stole. Property worth less than $2,000 is a misdemeanor, while property worth more than $2,000 is a felony.

  • If you stole between $2,001 and $99,999, you face a third-degree felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
  • Theft valued between $100,000 and $499,999 is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
  • Stealing more than $500,000-worth of property is a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

What about Normal Delays on Construction Projects?

As a contractor, you’ve usually got multiple projects going at once. You work on one home while you wait for materials to come in on another. You work on a third while things dry and set at the first two. During those projects, you meet with other homeowners, provide quotes, and accept the first of several installment payments for upcoming projects. You juggle a lot of tasks, and delays can snowball from days into months.

To avoid being accused of theft, you might want to avoid accepting payment when you know you can’t begin a project within a reasonable timeframe. When you’re experiencing delays, be sure to communicate with homeowners who are waiting. Tell them why you’re delayed and provide an estimate for when you can begin and complete the work.

Also, it would be best if you were willing to discuss refunds when unable to begin a project after being retained. Refusing to either complete the work or provide a refund can lead to criminal charges.

Accused of Theft? Call Skinner Law Firm

We know delays can get out of hand, and homeowners can be kept waiting despite your best intentions. Let us defend you against harmful accusations of theft by deception or another form of home improvement fraud. We recommend starting with a free consultation.

Reach out to Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410 or online today.

Article Author

Michael J. Skinner, the founder of Skinner Law Firm LLC, is a former prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

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