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‘Gypsy’ scammers facing over 70 felony charges

OKEECHOBEE—Four men who were allegedly scamming Polk County homeowners by offering to do paving work have been arrested on over 70 felony counts each.

The four men are accused of being traveling scam artists, or gypsies, and were initially arrested Feb. 7 by detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). Each man was charged with the felonies of burglary, grand theft, obtaining property by fraud, exploitation of the elderly, worker’s compensation fraud, home solicitation without a permit and theft.

They were being held in the Polk County Jail in Bartow on bonds ranging from $35,000 to $40,000.

But because of media attention and the information being put out on a social networking site, PCSO Public Information Officer Carrie Eleazar said 10 more victims have come forward. Now, each man is looking at an additional 70 felony charges each.

They were expected to go before a Polk County judge Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 12, for their first appearance hearing.

Whether or not they will receive a bond will be determined at that hearing.

On Feb. 3 the Okeechobee News published a warning to be wary of these travelling scam artists who offer to do inexpensive paving, roofing work or other types of jobs around your home.

“It’s that time of year. They always seem to hit when the Northerners are here,” said Major Noel Stephen of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO).

And like the aforementioned cases in the Auburndale area of Polk County, Maj. Stephen said these scammers prefer to operate in the smaller inland counties.

“It’s my personal opinion they take advantage of our Southern hospitality and kindness. Rural communities are more receptive to strangers knocking on the door,” he explained.

Maj. Stephen went on to explain that these people are usually well dressed, sound very legitimate and are very professional in their approach and the equipment they use.

“They’ll walk the person through everything, and go through a good song and dance about what they can do. It’s very believable to the resident,” added the major.

According to Ms. Eleazar, those arrested were: Jim Stevens, 35, Hillsborough, N.C.; Richard Pierce, 44, Hendersonville, Tenn.; Chad Lee, Sr., 40, Plainfield, Ill.; and Chad Lee, Jr., 19, Madison, Tenn.

Ms. Eleazar went on to say that PCSO investigators also seized approximately $140,000 in equipment that included: a 2006 International dump truck pulling a 1995 trailer that was carrying a Stone DD3100 roller; a GEHL paver; a Case SR 175 Bobcat; and, a 2008 GMC dump truck.

“Both dump trucks and all the commercial equipment involved were found to be lien free and were seized under the Florida Forfeiture Act,” said Ms. Eleazar. “We have already determined the stuff was paid for and have begun forfeiture procedures on it. (It’s) likely we will auction them off, because at this time we really don’t see a need for any of it.”

And even though the scammers look and act professional and use fairly new equipment, there are some telltale signs that give them away.

According to PCSO arrest reports the trucks and trailers had different license plates that included North Carolina, Tennessee and Illinois; the Department of Transportation numbers on the sides of the vehicles were different; and, the suspects use multiple fictitious company names. Those bogus company names included Orange Paving, Ace Paving, Power Blacktop Paving and Richard’s Paving.

None of those arrested had valid Florida driver’s licenses, added the arrest reports.

Maj. Stephen also said that even though these scammers like to target smaller inland communities, they normally don’t stay in the town they’re ‘working.’

“I’ve found they’re staying in Fort Pierce when they’re doing their scamming in Okeechobee. They normally won’t stay in a jurisdiction where they’re scamming,” he said.

To protect yourself from these gypsy scammers, always be cautious of those coming to your door and offering to do work around your home “on the cheap.”

“(And) A lot of times people don’t ask if they’re licensed in Okeechobee County or insured. You can always check with the building department to see if they’re licensed,” offered Maj. Stephen.

Citizens and homeowners should also be very wary of:
• Strangers knocking on your front door and striking up a long conversation. While you’re talking to the stranger their partner is either looking over your home or breaking into your home from the back.
• Hiring strangers to work on your house. One worker will keep you talking, while another is stealing from you.
• Hiring a caregiver without carefully checking their credentials. Run a criminal background check or ask agencies to provide you with a copy of the actual report.
• A caregiver who enters into an inappropriate relationship with an elderly loved one.
• A caregiver who tries to isolate your loved one and makes it difficult or impossible to speak to your loved one on the telephone.
• Fortune-telling scams where you or a loved one are told that evil is close but it can be warded off with help from the gypsy.
• Strangers either knocking on your door at home or approaching you in a parking lot about needing help because they are having car trouble.

The major also said homeowners should simply beware and ask questions. He said if there are any concerns, a legitimate contractor will appreciate you checking their license.

To reach the Okeechobee County Building Department call 863-763-5548. To contact the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, call 863-763-3117.