Dave Mack said he was a little caught off guard when Bill Pusateri showed up out of the blue in April at his home in Framingham, Massachusetts.
The owner of Priority 1 Paving had installed Mack’s driveway several years earlier. Over time, some cracks and other signs of weathering had taken shape in the asphalt and Mack figured the paver was just being proactive with former customers.
He agreed to have the driveway resealed and handed over a $1,000 deposit.
“He was very urgent and seemed like he needed the deposit right away,” Mack recalled. “There were a few warning bells going off in my head, but then I kept saying, ‘Well, he did our driveway before.’”
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Little did Mack know, the paver was about to appear in an NBC10 investigation. Customers all over the Boston area told us Pusateri took their deposits and disappeared without doing the job.
For a month after paying the $1,000, Mack said Pusateri kept promising by text message to complete the resealing job. A long list of excuses followed, he said.
“Then, it just went to dead silence,” Mack said.
That’s when the Framingham homeowner saw our follow-up story and realized the reason Pusateri stopped responding was because he was behind bars.
The paver appeared in Dedham court last month on larceny charges. He pleaded not guilty and was transported to the county jail while those cases play out. We asked Pusateri about the complaints from his former customers and he declined to comment.
“I was frustrated, angry and betrayed,” Mack said. “How can someone just take cash and not expect to do anything?”
More on our 'To Catch a Contractor' series
Mack is now one of at least a dozen former Pusateri customers we’ve identified who claim the paver showed up unsolicited at their homes and got them to pay money for new projects.
So is it always a red flag if a contractor shows up at your house out of the blue?
“It’s probably not a good idea to make a snap decision,” said Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan. “Somebody could’ve been a very reliable person five or six years ago. Life changes, people’s business situation changes, and their need for cash changes.”
Ryan could not talk specifically about Pusateri. As we’ve previously reported, her office is currently investigating the growing number of alleged larceny cases.
However, Ryan did sit down with us to discuss key consumer takeaway, like relying too much on online reviews.
“You have no idea where they come from. I can get ten of my relatives to write great reviews for me and put those up there,” Ryan said.
A quick glance at Priority 1 Paving’s Yelp page shows the business still averages a four-star rating. But a closer look reveals 16 of the 20 most recent posts are only one or two-star reviews.
A Yelp spokesperson told us its automated software filters out certain reviews and moves them to a “not recommended” section that does not factor into a business’ overall rating. A company video explains how the software makes those determinations.
Yelp said it also relies on consumers and business owners to report reviews that they believe violate the platforms terms of service.
“Yelp’s mission is to connect consumers with great local businesses by giving them access to reliable and useful information,” a Yelp spokesperson said in a statement. “Their trust is our top priority, which is why Yelp makes significant investments in both technology and human moderation to mitigate misinformation on our platform.”
The Yelp page for Priority 1 Paving is currently marked as “closed,” which means it won’t show up on the platform’s internal search results. It will still appear on other search engines like Google.
Some customers told us they wish they had searched the owner’s name along with the business because it would’ve revealed Pusateri was convicted of a similar scheme a decade ago in Worcester County and spent three years in prison.
Last month, Ryan’s office prosecuted a Tewksbury contractor for ripping off more than 100 homeowners. The conviction resulted in more than $1 million in restitution.
“If your job is to scam people, if that’s what you’re trying to do and get as much money as possible, you work really hard at it,” the DA said.
As our ongoing “To Catch a Contractor” investigation has illustrated, victims are often told their cases are civil matters and not criminal.
Because of the way the law is written, prosecutors have to prove a contractor never intended to finish a project.
So is it too hard to hold bad contractors accountable?
“I think it is difficult,” Ryan said. “That’s why we really appreciate you doing these series. Often people aren’t thinking about this until something has already happened. Even with a successful prosecution, it’s hard to get back the money.”
There is a state fund for consumers who have been ripped off by contractors. However, none of the alleged instances involving Pusateri would qualify because pavers don’t have to be licensed or registered in Massachusetts.
Ryan told us our investigation shows it might be time to add some type of oversight to that industry and others where consumers can quickly spend thousands of dollars on projects.