At least 10 people purportedly fell prey to a renovation contractor who took their money but did not complete the promised works and became uncontactable.
They each paid between $300 and $1,700 in deposits or made full payment to the owner of NJ Building, Mr Nicholas Ong, whom they found through his Facebook posts advertising painting and waterproofing services.
Two people have filed police reports.
A consumer, who wanted to be known only as Mr Alex, 42, said he was stunned to find his new home in disarray after hiring Mr Ong to remove the wallpaper and paint the walls of his three-bedroom condominium unit last November.
"The wallpaper was torn down so roughly that plaster had come off in some areas. I was shocked and angry," he told The Straits Times, adding that he paid a $900 deposit for works that would have cost $1,800.
"No painting was done. I tried to call and message him but there was no reply," said Mr Alex, who made a police report and employed another contractor to finish the work for about $3,000.
Another consumer, who wanted to be known only as Ms Lee, 51, a centre manager at a tuition centre in East Coast, said the centre paid a $300 deposit to Mr Ong last December for a $400 job to supply and install LED lights at the centre.
She alleged: "He roughly stripped off the lights and left the wires dangling. He said he would come back to finish up, but he didn't, and I have not been able to contact him since."
The centre made a police report and then had the lights installed by a contractor for $200. It also alerted the renovation group on Facebook where it saw Mr Ong's advertisement.
Mr Ong is listed as the sole business owner of NJ Building, which does simple renovation works and was registered last August, according to Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority records.
In response to queries, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) said it received three complaints against NJ Building from Nov 1 last year to March 11 this year.
Case president Melvin Yong said: "In general, consumers complained that they engaged the contractor to paint their premises, but the contractor did not complete the job after collecting deposits or prepayments. When consumers requested for a refund, the company's contact person was not contactable."
The contract value of the paint jobs ranged from $1,150 to $1,800, the MP for Radin Mas added.
Mr Alex told ST that Case sent a letter to Mr Ong, but there was no response.
Most of the 10 consumers ST spoke to said they had engaged Mr Ong as his quotations were lower than those from other contractors, and he was available at the time they wanted the works to be done.
Mr Alex, who works in IT, said his interior designer did not have enough workers to do painting. Others gave too high a quotation and could not fit into his moving schedule.
Besides forking out almost $3,000 for the painting and plastering works, Mr Alex said: "The moving company also charged me extra due to the change of date."
The police confirmed that they have received Mr Alex and Ms Lee's reports and said investigations were ongoing.
The other consumers — including two interior designers and a renovation contractor who sub-contracted works to Mr Ong — did not report their incidents.
A consumer who declined to be named said the $600 deposit he paid was "an expensive lesson learnt".
"At least he left a ladder and a tin of paint behind, so I was able to finish the job on my own," he added.
Mr Ong's former business partner, who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan, 28, also alleged that he delayed paying her salary by claiming that clients did not pay.
"When I contacted a client, he told me the works were not finished but Nicholas took the full payment," she said, claiming that Mr Ong still owed her about $700.
When ST tried to call Mr Ong, he did not pick up his phone. He responded to a text message ST sent, but went quiet after the reporter identified herself and requested for comments multiple times.
Criminal lawyer Amolat Singh said there should be a regulatory body with guidelines to establish baseline standards in the renovation industry.
"The police do not get involved in cases like these as it's a civil mismatch of expectations between the individuals who entered an agreement — it's not criminal," he said.
However, if a contractor accepts money without carrying out works, it would be a clear-cut cheating case, Mr Singh said.
Case or the Singapore Tourism Board can refer errant retailers — including renovation contractors — who persist in unfair trade practices to the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) for investigation.
CCCS can file injunction applications with the courts against persistent errant retailers, according to its website.
If they do not comply with the injunction order, CCCS can take them to court for contempt of court. If convicted, the offender could be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to one year, or both.
CCCS has not taken any renovation contractors to task, a spokesman said on Thursday (March 17).
Mr Singh said consumers can file a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals if the claim has a total value of up to $20,000, or up to $30,000 if the contractor agrees to it. They can file a civil claim if the value is higher.
"But when clients get an idea of how much it would cost to go to court, they'll do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that it's not worth it," he added.
Said Mr Alex: "It's not so much about the money I lost, but the people he affected along the way and the inconveniences he caused.
"If there are no consequences, he can continue doing this to more people."
Consumers who have outstanding disputes with NJ Building can call Case for assistance on 9795-8397 or go to the Case website.
Guarding against errant contractors
Case advises consumers to take note of the following when engaging renovation contractors:
- Compare quotations from different contractors, and do thorough research on the credibility and track record of the contractor before signing the contract. Insist on a written contract to protect your interests.
- Before signing a renovation contract, negotiate progressive payment according to project milestones. Conduct regular inspections of the premises to ensure the project is progressing according to the agreed schedule.
- Patronise CaseTrust accredited renovation contractors as they are required to purchase a deposit performance bond. The bond safeguards deposits against business closure before the renovation is completed.
- The accredited contractors are also required to adopt the CaseTrust Standard Renovation Contract, which contains clauses that safeguard consumers' interests, and ensures accountability for project deliverables. These contractors have in place proper and clearly defined dispute resolution mechanisms.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.