Warren police warn of paving scams

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published May 24, 2012

 Cpl. Matt Nichols of the Warren Police Department inspects thin asphalt laid as part of a recent scam.

Cpl. Matt Nichols of the Warren Police Department inspects thin asphalt laid as part of a recent scam.

Photo by Brian C. Louwers

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WARREN — There’s an old saying: If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

That was the case at two Warren properties earlier this month, when Cpl. Matt Nichols of the Warren Police Department said a nefarious band of paving scammers recently “resurfaced,” and nearly took would-be beneficiaries of bargain prices for thousands in cash.

Linda Stepho said she’s operated Unique 1 Auto Sales on Van Dyke, north of 13 Mile, for the past seven months with her husband, Joe Yousif.

She said they jumped on a super deal offered by what she thought was a legitimate paving contractor who came cold-calling at her shop on May 17.

“They said I have an extra load, and he’ll give it to me half-price,” Stepho said, standing on an asphalt drive behind her business, laid an inch thick at best and constructed so shoddily it can be peeled from the ground at the edge by hand. “He came out here and told me it would be $4,600. I got him down to $3,200.”

At a price that low, knowing that the cheaper alternative of crushed concrete could cost triple that amount, the couple jumped at the deal.

“We were so happy,” Yousif said, adding he paid for the work in cash. “That was the deal.”

Yousif said the five-man crew and the foreman who showed up to do the work sported new trucks and equipment. They had business cards and gave him a receipt for the transaction.

The couple had no idea the work was a scam until police arrived at the shop later that day.

Nichols is an expert who has studied scams run by organized groups of nomadic “families.” He said the far-reaching, complex schemes involving layers of master scammers, subordinates and often-oblivious laborers are sometimes called “Gypsy scams” or “traveler scams.” The elaborate ruses can involve the same people who crisscross the country as weather permits, bilking unsuspecting home and business owners out of cash for shoddy work performed under the guise of a promised “deal of the century.”

Nichols has shared what he’s learned with officers across the country, and he’s trained Warren police on how to spot potential scams.

The training paid off on May 17, when Sgt. Brendan Brosnan passed the auto body shop and observed the telltale signs of a traveler scam in progress. Brosnan notified Nichols, and sure enough, Nichols recognized some of the key players when he arrived at the shop. He said he’d even arrested a couple of the guys involved before.

As usual, the scammers quickly offered cash back when questioned about the work.

“Their immediate, knee-jerk reaction is all restitution,” Nichols said. “If they can make restitution and give the victim their money back, they’re all the less likely to pursue criminal charges. Most of the time when people get their money back, it’s good enough to make them whole.”

Nichols said going after criminal charges in such cases is often difficult. Disputes over the quality of work performed could be viewed as a civil matter, which is often nearly impossible to pursue because those running the scams have no local roots and simply cannot be found.

The orchestrators often hire laborers by offering to pay them cash for a day’s work. Rarely after transactions are completed will those running the show return to the job site, which makes them difficult to identify and confront.

Stepho and Yousif ended up getting their entire $3,200 back after Nichols intervened, but the same crew reportedly also did similarly poor work at a local church.

The church also was reimbursed after police intervention earlier this month, but reportedly didn’t recoup all of its cash.

Nichols said the group responsible for the two scams operates all over the country — including New York, Connecticut and Florida — but residents and business owners should be on guard now that they, and others like them, are back in metro Detroit.

When in doubt, Nichols said, the best thing to do is to walk away.

“A good day today is a good day tomorrow,” Nichols said. “If they are going to give you that super good, one-time deal, it’s probably better to pass or to at least get a couple of estimates.”

New or clean equipment, generic contractor names or logos, and out-of-state vehicle plates are also potential red flags of a looming scam, Nichols said.

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