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CA Contractor License Board Cracks Down on Illegal Advertising

Combing sites like Craigslist helps the state identify illegal online advertising of unlicensed contractors.

by / November 19, 2012

Craigslist, a popular, free website known for letting people advertise anything from antique furniture to apartments, also serves as a place for contractors to solicit business. But oftentimes, unlicensed contractors are posting illegal or deceptive advertisements, according to the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB). 

Over the last year, the CSLB, in conjunction with the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies, has released multiple consumer alerts warning consumers that there is potential risk in hiring a contractor off Craigslist -- contractors who may be posing as if they are licensed when, in fact, they are not. 

In the state of California, contractors must legally place their contracting license number in all print, broadcast and online advertisements. Unlicensed individuals can only legally advertise to do jobs valued at less than $500, but must clarify they are not a licensed contractor, according to the CSLB.

CSLB Spokesman Rick Lopes said the CSLB monitors Craigslist and other websites, performing “Web scraping” to identify individuals who are not abiding by legal contractor advertising practices. The board uses Craigslist as a primary source for identifying individuals who are later sought out during undercover sting operations. 

“A lot of time in our undercover operations we pose as homeowners,” Lopes said. “As a homeowner, you would look on Craigslist or you’d look on different places to find a contractor, and then you’d call them up and get a bid.”

According to a June press release from the CSLB, a series of sting operations conducted in eight cities across the state led to the arrest of 100 suspects – three-quarters of which were identified from Craigslist advertisements.

The CSLB’s concern about illegal or deceptive advertising on Craigslist is not a new issue. The board originally addressed the issue with Craigslist in 2006 and then again in 2007. Though Craigslist does provide a disclaimer page warning consumers about potential scammers and fraudulent activity, in addition to a separate page on user safety, some say the site doesn't enforce these policies. Craigslist was not available for comment for this story.

The advertising website requires that individuals interested in advertising for contractor jobs specify if they are a licensed or unlicensed contractor by entering the information on the “Skilled Trade Services” page. The page also links to a separate contractor’s license reference site to allow consumers to see if a certain contractor is license in a specific state.

Lopes said although licensed contractors are supposed to enter their contracting license number on Craigslist in order to advertise legally, individuals found a loophole in Craigslist’s system and often either leave that part blank in their submission, or enter other information that wasn’t the contract license number.

In response to what the board feel is a lack of enforcement, the CSLB has made efforts to encourage Craigslist to make their advertising policy stricter, but Craigslist has not yet responded to the CSLB pertaining to those concerns.

“[Craigslist] is a free platform for people to advertise. It’s a very level playing field for the unlicensed people to advertise right next to the licensed people,” Lopes said. “We’ve had a difficult time trying to get Craigslist to do some things to make it more difficult for the unlicensed contractors to do illegal advertising.”

According to Lopes, other states have faced similar problems with fraudulent advertising for unlicensed contractors.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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