The residents of Hillsborough County, Florida, can sleep safely tonight following the arrest of 118 people for performing unlicensed contracting work as part of a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sting known as "Operation House Hunters."
The sting, according to Patch, saw sheriff's deputies pose as homeowners seeking handymen on social media to do jobs that required licensure. These unsuspecting handymen would be lured to one of five homes, where undercover deputies filmed them performing or agreeing to perform prohibited tasks like painting or installing recess lighting.
The stings were carried out between March and December of last year. The arrests were announced yesterday.
"These 118 con men and women were posing as contractors & preying on innocent homeowners in Hillsborough County, who were just looking to repair or improve their home," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister at a Tuesday press conference. The mug shots of those picked up in the sweeps were displayed behind him on big posters.
The Sheriff's Office also released a compilation video of some of the handymen caught up in the sting operation, including several who had past criminal convictions, or who had been caught previously performing unlicensed contract work.
Only eight of the people arrested as part of Operation House Hunters were repeat offenders, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department. The other 110 were arrested for first-time offenses. The bulk of those charges were for "unlawful acts in the capacity of a contractor," a misdemeanor offense that can come with a $1,000 fine and a 12-month jail sentence. Repeat violations can result in a felony charge.
That the Sheriff's sting operation netted few master criminals is not surprising to Leslie Sammis, a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Florida, who has represented clients caught up in these sting operations in Hillsborough County.
"The real con men that are trying to trick homeowners are usually too experienced to get caught up in one of these types of sting operations. So the stings tend to catch someone that crosses the line in an unsophisticated way," Sammis told me in an email.
Frequently, she says, officers will hire a handyman on the pretext of performing work that doesn't need a license, and then during the course of the job ask them to do something that does, like unhooking a toilet or laying some tiles.
"When the handyman says no, then the undercover detective moves the conversation to something else and then comes back to the question later in a different way," says Sammis. "By the time the handyman gets to the location, they want to make the homeowner happy and end up agreeing to perform work that they didn't intend on doing when they first arrived. The undercover detective[s] are just creating a crime that probably wouldn't occur otherwise."
Occupational licensing, whether it's of contractors or hair braiders, is often much more about protecting incumbent businesses and government licensing revenue than it is about safeguarding the welfare of consumers.
Operation House Hunters is a perfect illustration of this, with cops going to great lengths to manufacture licensing law violations that either wouldn't have happened or wouldn't have produced unsatisfied parties.
The more effort law enforcement spends entrapping handymen, the fewer personnel and resources they have to devote to deterring other, more serious crimes. "These sting operations rake in big money in fines and court costs," Sammis says. "Catching real criminals actually committing a crime is much harder."