A Chapel Hill man has pled guilty in federal court after stealing over $3 million from elderly locals in Orange, Durham and Chatham counties.
Jorge Alberto Garcia was accused of offering home improvement services under the names “J&J Home Improvement” and “JH Home Improvements, Inc.” to elderly and often mentally impaired individuals, according to a Jan. 26 press release from the U.S. District Attorney's Office Middle District of North Carolina.
He would form personal relationships with these individuals, sometimes calling them “Momma” or “Poppa”, but never complete the work he had already charged for. He pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a home repair scheme and two counts of failure to file income tax returns.
The scheme was operated from May 2014 to Nov. 2019. The terms of Garcia’s plea agreement call for him to serve an 84-month sentence.
The investigation that led to Garcia being charged was a collaborative effort between the FBI, IRS criminal investigations, the Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Cary Police Departments and the Chatham County Sheriff's Office.
Sgt. Mark Miller was part of the investigation for the Durham Police Department. Miller said the instance of fraud that triggered the investigation was reported to Durham police in December 2018, with a second report filed immediately after.
“Once we kind of saw that the same pattern was there, preying on elderly people with some type of cognitive impairments, we started looking into other reports that were filed in other adjacent counties,” Miller said.
Miller said reports involving contractor or construction disputes are common, but that this case was different.
“This one was obviously different because of the pattern towards targeting the elderly with some kind of obvious impairment,” Miller said. “Going further, not just off the sort of construction scheme or the building aspect of it, but asking for personal loans or things of that nature to really exploit them.”
UNC law professor and expert on criminal law Carissa Byrne Hessick said cases of elder fraud can sometimes carry a larger sentence in federal cases.
“In the federal system, there is a sentencing enhancement for vulnerable victims,” Hessick said. “So it’s possible to maybe get a higher sentence if it’s a case of elder fraud as opposed to fraud that didn’t target older people.”
In June 2020, Attorney General Josh Stein filed a lawsuit against Garcia, his wife and JH Home Improvements, Inc. The lawsuit's purpose was, in part, to gain restitution for the elderly individuals Garcia fraudulently gained money from.
The lawsuit claims Garcia used confusion to convince the elderly individuals to agree to informal oral and handwritten contracts.
“Consumers trust him," the lawsuit reads. "They become befuddled by the multiple payments and numerous ongoing and unfinished projects, and they have no meaningful contract to protect them.”
The lawsuit states that Garcia would go up to individual houses and offer his services, which people would then agree to via a vague agreement. Work would usually begin on these projects and then stop abruptly, at which point Garcia would offer more paid services and ask for loans.
Multiple anonymous examples of Garcia’s fraudulent actions are provided in the lawsuit. One details how a Chapel Hill resident with dementia had withdrawn over $250,000 from her retirement fund for work worth an estimated $29,000 to $45,000.
The lawsuit against Garcia is ongoing, Nazneen Ahmed, senior communications and policy advisor for the N.C. Department of Justice, said in an email.
Sentencing is scheduled to take place on June 15 at 9 a.m. in Winston-Salem Courtroom Number Four.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.