After the garage behind her recently remodeled north Minneapolis house burned down in October, Tawanda Miller was anxious to get a new one built before Christmas.

With only partial insurance reimbursement, Miller tried to get the new garage built cheaply, seeking help on Craigslist rather than choosing a contractor licensed in Minnesota. Now she’s out $6,641, swindled by a man who claimed to be a contractor from Chattanooga, Tenn., but did no work.

“I just feel violated,” Miller said. “I should have known better. All the signs were there.”

She filed a report with the Minneapolis Police Department, and the state Department of Labor and Industry plans to investigate.

But Charlie Durenberger, assistant director of the construction codes and licensing division at the Labor Department, said Miller’s case illustrates why people need to hire licensed contractors. He advises people to verify contractors’ credentials on the department’s website before hiring anyone.

“It always breaks my heart when I hear of homeowners who are taken advantage of by unlicensed contractors,” Durenberger said. “It’s frustrating for us as regulators.”

If a licensed contractor swindles someone, the state has a contractor recovery fund that will reimburse a homeowner. But it’s unclear if it will apply in Miller’s case. At this point, they’re not even sure of her contractor’s true identity.

Meanwhile, Miller, 44, a nursing assistant who works two jobs and has two children living at home, doesn’t have enough insurance money left to rebuild. All that remains of her garage on the 2700 block of Russell Avenue N. in Minneapolis is the cement foundation.

Arson suspected

Police believe the fire that destroyed Miller’s garage was arson. There is a juvenile suspect but insufficient evidence to charge him, police said.

Miller said the suspect knew her children and sometimes slept in the garage, which did not have electricity. She found his belongings inside and told him to leave Oct. 20. Within hours, the garage was on fire.

She received a $13,000 insurance payment, but local contractors’ estimates for a new garage came in at $17,000 to $23,000.

“I heard that labor was cheaper in the South,” Miller said.

On the advice of a friend, she advertised on Craigslist in Chattanooga for a contractor. A man called, claiming to be Mike Chambers of Chambers Construction, offering to build her a garage for $10,700.

After several phone calls, she wired him $2,815 as a down payment and he and another man showed up at her house Nov. 30, their images captured on a security camera at her front door. The man presented a receipt from Lowe’s for $3,826 and said the materials would arrive in an hour. She signed a contract and he gave her a copy.

Miller paid him cash for the materials — he had arrived before she got the money order she had intended to use — and the men said they would wait outside for the supplies. She went about her business inside, and when Miller looked outside an hour later, the men were gone.

‘They vanished’

Miller called the man’s cellphone. He said Lowe’s got the wrong materials and would send a new shipment later. He said they’d come back Dec. 4. But when Miller called local Lowe’s stores, none had record of an order.

“They vanished,” Miller said.

Miller said she called a Chambers Construction company listed in Chattanooga, but a woman who answered the phone said they had not agreed to any jobs in Minnesota. The company could not be reached for comment.

Calls by the Star Tribune to the cellphone number the contractor gave Miller went unanswered.

Miller called Minneapolis police and an officer came out and took a report, which was turned over to the department’s forgery unit. The unit is investigating the case and has no further information, Sgt. Catherine Michal, a police spokeswoman, said.

Miller admits she is shaken and embarrassed that she fell for the scam.

“I tell my kids, ‘Be smart,’ and this happened to me,” she says. “I feel devastated.”


Twitter: @randyfurst