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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Over a recent two day period, undercover Miami-Dade police officers took down a cadre of allegedly illegal contractors, passing themselves off as licensed when they were not.

CBS4’s cameras were given exclusive access as two female economic crimes detectives met with contractors at a long-abandoned church.

The detectives were posing as customers wanting to restore the house of worship.

A string of contractors police had already identified as unlicensed – mostly through citizen complaints – showed up to give estimates.

When they left, marked units pulled them over and slapped on the handcuffs.

Police say unlicensed contractors are parasites.

“This affects everyone in the community.  Not only the homeowners but also licensed contractors who are trained and play by the rules,” said Det. Alfonso Najera.

Whether you’re doing a complete floor-up remodeling of your kitchen or looking for repairs after a storm, you don’t want to hire someone who is unlicensed and unqualified.

“You have no recourse in the event you give these people your money and they disappear,” Najera said.

Investigators say they have arrested unlicensed contractors who have histories of serious arrest, even convicted sex offenders.

“You’re letting people inside your residence that are not licensed, who have violent pasts, and it could actually be a dangerous situation,” said Det. Argemis Colome.

For the men and women in economic crimes, nabbing accused unlicensed contractors can be personal.

“We know family and friends who have been the targets of these unscrupulous individuals,” Najera said.

Police say unlicensed contractors will go to great lengths to seem legal, with formal-looking paperwork and contracts – usually with no address on them.

One of the suspects arrested in the string was driving a van with the name, Enrique Service & Repair on it, along with a contractor’s license number.

Police say the unregistered company and the license number weren’t worth the side of the dilapidated van they were painted on.

“They appear to be legit.  They put license numbers on their cars, just scrambled numbers that don’t mean anything,” Colome said.

Police say there are ways to protect yourself:

– Never deal with someone who wants cash.

– Never pay upfront.

– Get everything in writing, exactly what work is to be done and for what price.

– Check the contractor’s license status.

There are numerous state and local websites and hotlines that can tell you if a contractor is legal and, if they are, what history of complaints or discipline might be on their record.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional regulation provides contractor information at https://www.myfloridalicense.com/wl11.asp.

Miami-Dade County maintains contractor license status at http://egvsys.miamidade.gov:1608/WWWSERV/ggvt/bnzawbcc.dia.

Broward’s contractor website is https://dpepp.broward.org/BCS/Default.aspx?PossePresentation=SearchForContractorLicense.

You can report suspected fraud in Miami-Dade at 305-994-1000.

In Broward the number to call is 954-765-4400.

In addition to slapping the cuffs on the alleged illegal contractors in the recent sting, police also seized their vehicles.

Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor that can carry a year in the county jail.

One man caught up in the sting is charged with a felony because he has a prior arrest for contracting without a license.  He could be looking at time in state prison.

In the two day sting, cops kept appointments with 12 contractors.  All 12 were arrested for operating illegally.

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