When Detective Acting Sergeant Steve Sinclair first started looking into reports of an alleged roofing scam in 2018, he had no idea how far-reaching the scheme was.
“I noticed similarities between the circumstances and the more I started digging into the reports, it became evident that this was more than just a case of a one-off dodgy dealer,” Det A/Sgt Sinclair said.
What began to emerge was a pattern of sophisticated offending across the greater Melbourne area, which saw one eastern suburbs victim lose $260,000 after being tricked by the con.
The scam involved fake tradies, also referred to as travelling con men, offering to do maintenance work on a person’s home or office and disappearing once payment had been made. Their work was usually substandard or left unfinished, that is if the work started at all.
While older or vulnerable people were specifically targeted in the scam, Det A/Sgt Sinclair said the con group would often drop flyers in letterboxes across several suburbs to flush out more victims.
“People often think of these roofing scams and question how people get tricked into it, but these offenders are well-established and run a highly-sophisticated operation that could easily trick anyone into believing them,” Det A/Sgt Sinclair said.
Recognising the severity and criminal nature of the deception offences, Det A/Sgt Sinclair and his team – Leading Senior Constable Kelly Bowen, Detective Senior Constable Jason Stewart and Senior Constable Georgia Harris – started an in-depth investigation into several reported offences across northern, eastern and southern Melbourne suburbs.
The team, working as part of the Eastern Region Division 1 Divisional Crime Team’s High-Harm, High-Impact Offending Team, spent hundreds of hours investigating reports of these types of roofing scams.
“As part of the con, thousands of flyers were printed using unregistered business names, which are designed to make the business look like a legitimate operation specialising in property maintenance,” Ldg Sen Const Bowen said.
“Often they will use an existing ABN to display legitimacy, but they don’t have any link to this business.
“They will also list phone numbers which have been set up using false identities.”
With such a sophisticated set-up giving the scammers the appearance of legitimate businesses, Det A/Sgt Sinclair said the level of deception pulled off by these organised scam groups was very high, resulting in victims being fleeced of large sums of money.
“People contacted these fake businesses because they came off as legitimate, even if you did a quick search of the ABN,” he said.
“The group would then attend an address and provide a quote for the work required, which generally started off at a reasonable price before unexpectedly increasing after work had started because the workers claimed issues had been located.
“This work is often unnecessary, but the group was able to convince the victim it was required by claiming the property was unsafe without the work being done.”
The investigation process Det A/Sgt Sinclair and Ldg Sen Const Bowen undertook involved the investigators obtaining the records of more than 50 mobile numbers linked to the fake businesses, tracking down printing places where flyers advertising them were produced, accessing CCTV and sharing information with interstate and international law enforcement agencies.
“With so many elements of these fake businesses being set up in different names, it was a matter of finding any information that would point us from one person, to another, and so on until we could identify the top-level offender,” Det A/Sgt Sinclair said.
The two years of investigative work put in by the team resulted in a United Kingdom national being sentenced to two years’ jail in June 2020.
The man had ripped off more than $360,000 from victims across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs between 2018 and 2019.
The investigation and arrest have also resulted in a huge disruption to a ring of similar offending across Melbourne, with several other high-level offenders being identified through the process.
“There are many people involved at the top level of these scams, often related to, or known to, each other,” Det A/Sgt Sinclair said.
“This means that when we look into one person, we are alerted to other possible offenders, which helps disrupt the offending because they are put on alert that police are looking into the set-up.”
Ldg Sen Const Bowen said anyone with concerns about getting repair work done on their house should consult the Victorian Consumer Affairs fake tradies information page, consumer.vic.gov.au/faketradies.
“Most tradespeople out there are legitimate workers, but it’s important people are aware of these types of scams so they can identify and report any of these groups,” she said.