New program helps fight shady contractors working Hurricane Irma repairs

Highlands County launches Senior Sleuths

SEBRING, Fla. — Long after Hurricane Irma left Florida, the evidence of her wrath is still visible in much of Highlands County.

Norma Whitaker is a snowbird who lives in the Francis One Mobile Home Park. She said she has seen people struggling to get even basic storm repairs done, creating a prime hunting ground for crooked contractors.

"They're like ringing their hands, what am I going to do what am I going to do?" Whitaker said. "Somebody walks up and is like oh, I can do this for you. They say they can do this, I can do that. They naturally say, oh that's wonderful."

Deputies are often called about situations that do not rise to the level of a crime and are civil issues, according to the Highlands County Sheriff's Office. In those situations, a law enforcement agency’s hands are basically tied, they said. The only thing the deputy can do is refer the citizen to a lawyer or small claims court.

Highlands County residents now have a new tool to help resolve situations that are civil, rather than criminal, in nature via the Seniors vs. Crime program. The special project of the Florida Attorney General is now up and running at the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.

This comes as there are still many people waiting for repairs from Hurricane Irma damage.

The Highlands County Sheriff now concerned about desperate people falling victim to storm-related repair scams.

"You have a lot of folks who have had damage to their homes, a lot of damage to their houses," said Sheriff Paul Blackman. "There are those folks who are unlicensed and uninsured who find a target to make quick money."

One example would be if somebody paid up front to have work done on their home and it either wasn’t completed or was not done correctly, HCSO said, That would be a civil, rather than criminal, issue, HCSO said.

A Senior Sleuth would help the resident work to resolve the situation.

“We are here for any financial or contractual issue that is in dispute” Guinther said. If the Senior Sleuths discover that what happened could be a crime, then they turn everything over to a law enforcement.

“My goal is to work in two-person teams with one civilian and one retired law enforcement officer,” Guinther said.

They will be on site at the HCSO headquarters at 400 S. Eucalyptus St. in Sebring every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those hours could grow as needed, as can the number of Senior Sleuths, HCSO said.

To file a complaint, anyone (despite the name, the program is not limited to just seniors) can come in during those hours, or call 863-402-7849.

Another method would be to go to SeniorsVsCrime.com and file a complaint online. All the work will be done at the HCSO building.

The Sleuths are not allowed to go out in the field, so you have to come to them. They also can’t take third-party complaints.

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