JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After another potential victim called News4Jax to sound off on a local lawn business accused of ripping off elderly women, the I-TEAM discovered that this line of work is largely uncontrolled in Florida.
For weeks, more people who paid Hilton Long Lawn and Tree Service to do work have come forward, saying he took their money and never completed the work.
On the business card, Hilton Long Law and Tree Service offers its license number. But the I-TEAM went to track that down and learned the number just proves that the company paid city taxes and is allowed to do business in Jacksonville.
But the I-TEAM also uncovered the legitimacy of the business and many like it are regulated by no one.
"He talked about what good Christians they were and how reliable their work was going to be, gave me his insurance certificate," Linda Milford said. "I thought I'd done everything I should."
Milford is one of several local women who called the I-TEAM to complain about unfinished or damaging work by Hilton Long Lawn and Tree Service.
Jean Broxton, 81, said she paid Hilton Long $2,900 upfront for them to cut and clear away her trees, but was left with a mess.
Milford had the company remove a branch, but she said it accidentally took down her power pole and left her with this $747 repair bill.
Tom Stephens, president of the local Better Business Bureau, has been tracking the company.
"He's had one, two, three, four, five, six complaints," Stephens said.
Long's company currently has a BBB grade of F.
"Anybody can rent a chainsaw and call themselves a tree service," Stephens said.
He also warned that's dangerous for consumers, but said, "Obviously, it's done."
Stephens said women like Milford have to go a step further than just verifying coverage via paperwork -- they need to pick up the phone or go online.
"You're letting somebody on your property. They're letting people run around your house," he said. "If you hire XYZ tree trimming company, and one of their employees falls out of a tree and breaks his back and doesn't have workers' comp, you're responsible for the injuries to that person."
He recommended all consumers take the following vital steps:
- Never pay for work before completion.
- Call and verify a company's general liability insurance -- don't just accept the paperwork.
- Verify the company carries workers' compensation coverage.
- Verify the business is properly registered with the city or state.
- Check a company's rating with the BBB.
Calling is a must because, sometimes, business owners will only pay a first installment or down payment on a plan and then sloppy bookkeeping or bad business practices leave them missing payments. So the coverage is lapsed, but they are showing paperwork that looks valid, but is not. The BBB said since the I-TEAM's reports started a few weeks ago, the BBB's top three searches now include tree trimmers behind roofers and general contractors, which is great news because an educated consumer is an empowered consumer.
In Long's case, the I-TEAM on Monday called his business' insurance company and confirmed its coverage is valid.
Hilton Long Lawn and Tree Service is properly registered with the city of Jacksonville. But the I-TEAM went online and found no workers' compensation insurance, which Long said Monday by phone that he was completely unaware that he needed. It's possibly another sign of how these businesses are truly unregulated and uninformed.
Below, there are links to multiple resources online where consumers can go to check out the contractors who they are hiring:
- Verify a business is registered with the state: http://dos.myflorida.com/sunbiz/search/
- Verify a business is recognized by the city of Jacksonville and pays taxes to operate: http://fl-duval-taxcollector.publicaccessnow.com/LocalBusinessTaxSearch.aspx
- More city of Jacksonville resources for verifying local business: http://www.coj.net/departments/tax-collector/local-business-tax
- Florida’s Division of Workers' Compensation Compliance Proof of Coverage Search Page: https://apps8.fldfs.com/proofofcoverage/Search.aspx
- Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida: https://www.bbb.org/north-east-florida
- Duval County Clerk of Court to see whether a contractor has criminal history: https://core.duvalclerk.com/CoreCms.aspx
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