'Asphalt pirates' sail into Southwest Georgia

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Code Enforcement Officer Jim Wright's heard the story too many times.

A local homeowner secures a bid from a legitimate asphalt and paving company for repairs to his driveway and faces a bill somewhere in the $5,000 to $6,000 range. Along comes a smooth-talking "salesman" with a repair crew ready to step in and do the "same" job for a price some $3,000 to $4,000 less, and the homeowner can't believe his good fortune.

The homeowner's right to be incredulous.

"By springtime," Wright says, "that homeowner is mowing grass in his driveway."

Winter has become prime time in Southwest Georgia for groups Wright calls "asphalt pirates" -- unlicensed repairmen who swoop into warm weather communities like Leesburg and Albany and offer bargain-basement driveway, roofing and painting prices, do shoddy or substandard work, and then just as quickly disappear from the area.

The homeowners, Wright laments, are left with the same problems, but with no recourse to recoup their money.

"These guys are usually very good at making a repair job look good," Wright said. "But in a short period of time, problems start popping up. And by the time the people who paid for the work notice, these folks are gone."

Mack Odom, owner of Mack Odom Asphalt Paving and Grading in Lee County, estimates such swindlers have taken more than a half-million dollars of business from legitimate local companies in the last couple of years.

"Lord, yes, those gypsies come here every year during the winter when they can't work for the snow and ice up north. They take people's money and go back up north," Odom said. "What they do is make something look good for the short-term, get their money and take off.

"Where we might use 2 inches of asphalt over a solid base on a job, they put from three-quarters to a half-inch of asphalt with no base."

Wright said not all out-of-state companies that come into the area offering to do such work are swindlers.

"The big difference is the legitimate companies get a local business license," he said. "That's a requirement."

The Code Enforcement officer offers a checklist of red flags homeowners should look for when approached by a company promising low-price repairs:

- Unwanted, door-to-door solicitation

- Discounted or inexpensive materials

- High-pressure sales tactics

- Demand for payment in cash, usually before the job is started or completed

- Business cards with no physical address, only a P.O. box

- Magnetic signs on vehicle doors

- Lack of local references

- Failure to show a legitimate Lee County business license.

Lee County code Section 46-3 lists actions in the county that constitute disorderly conduct. No. 13 on the list is "for any person to peddle or sell door-to-door his/her service or the services of another or any item without a county, state, business, professional or other legal and binding license or permit; unless said individual is raising money for a local not-for-profit event such as for his/her school, church, etc."

Wright said he, and sometimes Lee sheriff's deputies, will cite any company that operates such a business without a license.

"I don't want to make it sound like all companies that do this kind of work are bad; they're not," he said. "My biggest concern, though, is that I don't want to see the people of this county swindled out of their hard-earned money.

"If we get notice that such a group is operating in the county, we will cite them. And they face a fine of up to $1,000 per count and 60 days in jail."

Wright warns local citizens that now is the time of year that illicit repair crews start showing up in the region.

"The season's just starting for them," he said. "By using a little common sense, homeowners won't get taken by these folks. The best thing to remember is that if something sounds like too good of a deal to be true, it probably is."

Wright urged homeowners who are solicited by an individual or group that brings to mind any of the red flags listed above to call his or the county building inspection office at (229) 759-6000.