NCSO: Beware of "Traveler" con artists

COVINGTON - With spring inching closer, Newton County authorities want residents to be on the lookout for a band of nomadic con artists, who are commonly known as Irish Travelers.

Authorities say these "Travelers" head out from their homes each year around this time and travel across the country for three or four months, offering bogus discount home improvement services to unwitting victims. After offering these services, which range from driveway paving to roofing, the con artists then try to intimidate or dupe their victims into giving them more money.

The people these fraudulent handymen most often target are the elderly, and they usually drive unmarked vehicles with out-of-state license plates, which makes tracking them down extremely difficult.

Lt. Mark Mitchell, spokesman for the Newton County Sheriff's Office, said investigators are currently looking into whether or not two recent incidents in which a man, claiming to work for the gas company, forced his way into the residences of two elderly women are connected to Irish Travelers. The suspect reportedly stole $2,000 from the purse of one of the victims, as well as some personal belongings.

Mitchell said they have arrested three to four groups of people running these types of scams over the past five years. According to the NCSO spokesman, many of these Irish Travelers live in a community known as Murphy Village near North Augusta in South Carolina.

"If any group comes to your home and offers to do a service ... and if something looks suspicious, call us, that's why we're here," Mitchell said. "It's better to err on the side of caution for safety sake at least."

Before allowing any unknown person to do work to your home, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs suggest you:

· Get the name and address of the company that person allegedly represents;

· Determine how long the company has been in business and call organizations with which the contractor is affiliated to determine the firm's legitimacy;

· Ask for references and contact each one;

· Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints against the business;

· Ask to see the contractors's business license and then check with the county or city business license department to make sure it's valid;

· Get written estimates from several companies for identical project specifications;

· Always insist on a contract for work to be performed, with all guarantees, warranties and promises in writing. Agree on start and completion dates and have them written into the contract;

· Make sure the contractor gets a building permit and that he does so under his name or the name of his business;

· Ask to see proof of insurance (personal liability, workers compensation and property damage);

· Consider setting payment terms in conjunction with completed stages of the job.

Joel Griffin can be reached at joel.griffin@newtoncitizen.com.