I'm in a home renovation nightmare. My interior designer accepted $100,000 in payments for appliances, cabinets, flooring, fixtures, and appliances, but never paid the vendors for these items. When confronted, he broke down in tears and admitted that he needed to use the money for other business expenses.
Meanwhile, my business is on hold, and I'm living in expensive, short-term rentals. I could go to the police and have him arrested for embezzlement, post warnings on social media, and/or sue him for the money, but he clearly doesn't have the money to pay me back unless he can somehow keep the business going.
My dilemma is do I stay calm and continue pursuing him for money until he pays me back, or do I report him and suspend him and thus protect others from a similar fate?
Searching for justice in a California desert town
See also: I'm 34 and have 5-10 years to live – I want to spend $50,000 on a new kitchen, but my wife is adamantly against it
Dear desert city,
The most important thing to remember is that those tears were for himself. It wasn't for you, it was a result of the realization that he was caught using your money to pay off his debts, and that he could face legal and public consequences. He wasn't in tears when he stole your money that you worked so hard for.
Why am I saying this? Because you are very likely dealing with a narcissist who will do what he has to do to ensure his own business stays afloat – because your money means nothing to him except as a solution to getting out of debt. Because if he feels that you are soft to the touch, he will drag you for months, even years.
You will need to light a fire under him by letting him know that you will go to the local press, the district attorney's office, the Better Business Bureau, and yes, the police if he doesn't pay you back within a set period of time. Naturally, it will likely require more time, and more, and more. Send him a registered letter setting a deadline and what you will do, as described above, if he doesn't meet it.
Before taking legal action, which could be costly and protracted, you are confronted with trust. Anything that threatens his reputation and ability to do business will do more to make him treat you as a serious competitor, someone not to be messed with, and he doesn't take a $100,000 heist lightly. He supposedly has a lot of money running around in his accounts, but he chose you as a soft touch. Prove him wrong.
Home services website Angi has other suggestions. “If you hire a licensed, bonded contractor, you may file a complaint with the licensing board against his or her bond,” the letter states. “But you need to provide proof, which is why your written contract, payment history and contractor contact records are essential.”
“Arbitration is a low-cost process where a neutral party or third party mediates a resolution between you and the contractor,” the company adds. “These out-of-court hearings are a great way to reach a final agreement without going to court. Ask your attorney how he handles arbitration and what he recommends for your case.
Always have your contractor and/or interior designer sign a contract, ask for insurance and licensing information, never pay for services, fixtures and fittings upfront, and make sure you have receipts for everything. Your case falls outside the jurisdiction of small claims court. If your contractor declares bankruptcy, you will have to line up as one of his creditors.
In California, “theft by false pretenses” involves one party taking your property by either lying to you or by making a false promise. “The truth is that ‘false pretenses’ is a theft crime just like shoplifting or grand theft auto,” according to Shouse California Law Group. “If you are charged with this crime, you may face the same types of penalties as someone charged with one of the traditional types of theft.”
Know your audience: This is the person who will do everything in his power to make sure he gets out of the hole he dug for himself. It would be hard to see them posting about their business on Facebook and Instagram META;
Encourage others to use their services, so make sure he knows you mean business. If he wants to avoid PR Armageddon, he needs to deal with you first.
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