Homeowners Nailed by Repair Fraud

Senior citizens aren't only ones falling victim.

November 23, 2007

Staff Writer

For $8,500, the West Dundee couple was supposed to get a whole lot more than a mound of gravel and a torn-up backyard.

That's how much the couple paid Bartlett-based landscaper William R. Sippel to install a patio and walkway behind their home, on the 1300 block of Maple Circle. When the work was never finished, they called Sippel's company, Bill's Landscaping, to complain, but were told the company had gone out of business, according to court records.

So the couple sued and won. On Oct. 29, a judge entered a default judgment against Sippel and his wife, Gloria J. Sippel, also of Bill's Landscaping, after they failed to appear for the hearing, records indicate.

"He knew he was going out of business," said the husband, whose asked that his name be withheld. "He knew he was hurting for money. I know there's worse things in the world that can happen to someone, but to this day I don't know how you can look someone in the eye and take their money."

Home repair fraud is an ongoing problem, and growing residential areas provide plenty of targets. It may seem like an easy way to make a buck because many of these incidents go unreported, according to police. But getting caught could lead to more than a lawsuit; a criminal conviction could mean up to seven years in prison.

Not only does William Sippel owe the couple $8,500 plus attorney's fees, he now is charged with felonies in connection with another alleged scam that took place in Elgin.

Sippel, 44, of the 200 block of Butler Drive, Bartlett, is charged with one felony count each of aggravated home repair fraud and theft. He filed for bankruptcy months ago.

According to court records, on July 16, Sippel agreed to install a patio for an elderly resident living on the 2900 block of Shamrock Drive in Elgin. Sippel accepted payment from the man but did not complete the work or have the means to do so, prosecutors say. He is free after posting $600 bond on the charge. His wife is not criminally charged.

Well known in area

Many who attempt home repair fraud move from community to community to avoid being recognized as swindlers, but it appears Bill's Landscaping was fairly well known. The West Dundee couple was told -- after the incident -- that Sippel shortchanged another area family and had a deteriorating reputation among other local contractors, they said.

The couple, aged 37 and 39, live in a part of West Dundee where many homeowners were having outside improvements done, they said. They received Sippel's brochure, and heard from a neighbor that he did good work.

The couple admits they ought to have checked with the Better Business Bureau -- a search of the Web site shows an unsatisfactory record for Bill's Landscaping due to unanswered complaints. But even experts wouldn't peg them as easy targets; people in their 30s aren't commonly victimized, one local expert said.

Much like ruse-entry scams -- where thieves pose as utility workers in order to gain entry to a house -- home repair fraud often strikes the elderly. There are many reasons why seniors make perfect marks, according to Elgin Police Elderly Service Officer Cherie Aschenbrenner.

"They're usually home during the day," Aschenbrenner said, adding that scam artists will tell residents that they can perform the home improvements immediately.

"They talk real fast. They don't give them a chance to think," she said.

Aschenbrenner said driveway repaving is one common scam. Swindlers will offer to do the work right then and there, using dyed water to coat the driveway, taking the payment, and disappearing.

Scam artists are opportunistic and the schemes are always changing. After the late-August storms and flooding in the Fox Valley, it's particularly important right now for residents to keep an eye out for scammers who pose as government representatives, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently warned citizens.

Tough cases to build

Perhaps another reason home repair fraud is prevalent is it's often difficult to build a case against suspects, said Elgin Police Detective Jim Roscher.

"Number one, you've got to track them down," which is very difficult when they migrate, Roscher said. Also, sometimes authorities must prove the suspect didn't have the crews, equipment, time or money to do the job, he said. Bankruptcy is another factor.

As with any kind of scam, the best way to avoid wasting your money is to do your homework, experts say. Residents are encouraged to research contractors and get a number of estimates. Prices well below the market value automatically should raise suspicions, authorities say.

Just like Mom used to say: if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.