Four contractors were fined by the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation last week, which also revealed that it had run a small sting operation to try to snag unregistered contractors.

Officials invited a few contractors who ran ads on Craigslist and in local newspapers to a Central Massachusetts home under the impression they would be doing roofing, decking, and window replacements.

A couple of contractors who showed up admitted they had not registered with the office, something required by law. Another was registered, but not under the name listed in his ad. All ads must include the name of the registered business and its registration number. You can check that information on the consumer affairs website to determine if the registration is current and to see what complaints may be on file.


It might not seem like that big of a deal, but the sting highlights that it's still easy to find contractors who aren't playing by the rules. Consumers who hire them are taking a lot more risks than they would if they used someone who is registered — a distinction that ensures the contractors have insurance, that there's someplace to turn if there's a dispute, and that consumers have the protection of the state Guaranty Fund, which enables homeowners who suffer monetary losses to apply for compensation. The Guaranty Fund only stands behind registered contractors.

Being registered doesn't signify quality. It's a minimum requirement that every consumer should insist upon. More than 25,000 home improvement contractors are registered . Here's some additional guidance from the state about using contractors:

■  Make sure you get a contract in writing with the terms of the work spelled out in detail. That's required for any job of more than $1,000 and has to say when the work will start, when it is expected to be completed, when payments are due, and specifics about the project and materials.


■  Limit the initial payment to one-third or less of the total agreed-upon price. The exception is if the contractor has to special order or custom make items.

■  Be sure you have checked with other people who have used the contractor – ideally at least three – and ask if you could check out the work that was done.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers for two decades. He also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.