ST. LOUIS — A recommendation from a neighbor or friend can often seal the deal. Especially if you're looking for a contractor.
It didn't work out well for one Hazelwood man. He told the 5 On Your Side I-Team he had no idea his roofing contractor had just been released from prison for stealing thousands from his customers.
This spring when Justin McDonald found out his roof was leaking, he knew he needed to act fast.
“I was getting some water leak from a rainstorm,” said McDonald.
The lockdown had just started. Finding a contractor was tricky. So, McDonald felt lucky when his neighbor had a recommendation for him: Donald "DJ" Harralston with 'Multiple Trade Solutions LLC'.
“[Harralston claimed he] worked with, you know, local police officers and things like that. So, he wanted to make sure to keep your, keep business up in this area,” said McDonald.
McDonald gave Harralston $7,000. That was the entire amount his insurance company gave him to cover the repair.
“[Harralston] told me that within a week of getting the insurance money that he could start the process,” said McDonald. “I got them the check and I never heard from him again.”
McDonald did some research and came across Harralston’s lengthy rap sheet.
“I found out that he was a convicted felon for insurance fraud,” said McDonald.
“The Missouri attorney general had actually filed suit against him,” said Don O’Brien with the Better Business Bureau. The BBB has issued at least two warnings about Harralston and his contracting businesses.
A long criminal history
The I-Team found Harralston's criminal record stretches back almost two decades. It includes 20 felony convictions, such as forgery, theft, drug possession, exploiting the elderly and deceptive business practices.
In 2017, Harralston was sentenced to 10 years in prison for financially exploiting the elderly in Jefferson County with his previous business: All-American Remodeling.
Ultimately, his sentence was suspended. Court documents show Harralston completed a drug treatment program and was released from prison in the summer of 2019. Less than a month later, he was accused of scamming people once again as a contractor. This time with a new business name: Multiple Trade Solutions LLC.
“What happens, unfortunately, sometimes as these contractors go bad, they will open up a business with another name,” explained O’Brien.
“I feel like had he served at least 60% if not 80% of his time in prison, I would have never dealt with him,” said McDonald. “I feel like the justice system, in a way, kind of failed people like us, the ones who are being victimized by the scam.”
Court documents filed by the Missouri attorney general show McDonald is one of at least nine victims who paid Harralston for work he never started or never finished.
Justice coming for victims?
In October, the AG’s office filed to revoke Harralston's probation. He was taken into custody but recently posted bond. He will be back in court on Dec. 9 for a case review hearing regarding parole revocation.
Also in October, Harralston was arrested for possessing a gun. He’s since been charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He faces a felony D charge. His arraignment is scheduled for February.
As the wheels of justice slowly turn, McDonald has some words of advice for anyone looking for a contractor.
“First and foremost in your research, do your background checks and do your Better Business Bureau checks. Because even with just recommendations from neighbors, you just can't go off that alone.”
Tips for choosing the right contractor
Consider these tips when hiring anybody to work in your home:
Research and gather information. Search for a contractor’s business profile at BBB.org for free information on history of complaints, read verified customer reviews and see if they are an Accredited Business. BBB Accredited Businesses make a commitment to uphold BBB's accreditation standards including: to build trust, advertise honestly, tell the truth, be transparent, honor their promises, be responsive to their customers, safeguard privacy and embody integrity. Also search for the name of the company online along with "complaint", "review" or "scam" to find different results. Ask the company if employees and subcontractors undergo a background check. Are they trained and certified? What identification will they show when they come to your home?
Ask for references. Ask the contractor for a list of recent local references you may contact. Ask the references about the services performed and their overall experience with the contractor and the quality of the work. Ask if the contractor stuck to the estimated budget and completion date for the project. If possible, inspect the contractor's work yourself. Ask if the contractor is a member of a professional association that has standards or a code of ethics.
Ask for multiple quotes. You should always shop around and get at least three quotes from different businesses. Make sure all bids consider the same set of criteria. Remember that the lowest bid may not necessarily be the best bid; if one bid is significantly lower than the others, the contractor may be cutting corners or may not understand your work requirements.
Get it in writing. Always get estimates in writing and never let any work begin without a written and signed contract. Do not be pressured into signing an agreement before you are ready and make sure you read and understand everything before signing. The contract should include contact information, start and finish dates, a detailed description of the exact work to be done, any material costs, payment arrangements and warranty information. Specify who is to obtain necessary building permits and who is responsible for cleanup. Make sure all verbal promises are included in the contract. Ask how much work will be subcontracted and ask for information on the subcontractors. Ask questions if you do not understand any part of the contract. Never sign an incomplete or partially blank contract.
Verify license and insurance. Always be sure that the company you decide to work with has the necessary licenses and insurance to work in your region. In the United States, you can get to your state’s licensing agency to learn more here.
In Canada, requirements differ from province to province. Search for information specific to the province you are having the work done. Your local BBB can help. Once you have your contractor’s insurance information, call the carrier to confirm appropriate coverage for worker’s compensation, property damage and personal liability in case of accidents.
Confirm building permits. Your contractor must have the correct permits before starting your project. They will usually obtain the permits, but you will probably pay for them. That should be detailed in your contract. Request that all final inspections be completed by the local building official prior to final payment.
Inquire about a lien waiver. A lien waiver, in the United States, is a statement from your contractor that says all suppliers and subcontractors have been paid for their work. In some Canadian provinces, there is a mandatory Builders Lien holdback, so ensure you understand any financial obligations you may be liable for.
Think about future service issues. Make sure you are aware of your warranty coverage and how to deal with service issues.
Arrange a payment schedule. Never pay in full up front. Stagger your payments so your final payment is not due until the work is complete and you have fully inspected it. Do not pay cash; make sure your check is written to a company, not an individual or that you use a credit card. Paying with a credit card will provide some recourse should the job not be completed as stated in the contract.
Get a receipt. Request a receipt marked “Paid in Full” when the job is completed and your final payment made.
Keep your contract. Hold on to your contract for future reference or if any questions arise after the work is complete.