CHICAGO — When it comes to hiring people online, the advice is always the same: do your homework. Still, a number of people contacted WGN Investigates admitting they should have done more to check out the background of a handyman they all hired.
An iconic obstacle from the mini golf course in Maggie Daley Park — the Wells Street Bridge at the 16th hole — is missing.
The tale of why the bridge is missing bridge led WGN Investigates to James T. Collins, a handyman who’s left a trail of complaints across the city and suburbs. Some customers say he told them he could do it all, but the only thing he did was take them for a ride.
Rob Long owns that mini golf course downtown, and placed an ad on Craigslist looking for a welder to build a new bridge. He said when Collins showed up, he met a nice and friendly guy. Collins even let Long take a picture of his driver’s license.
They agreed on a price of $300. Collins took the bridge, saying he had to make sure his measurements were right and asked for half of the money up front. Long said he paid him $150, and that was the last time he saw Collins.
According to Long, Collins wouldn’t pick up his phone calls or respond to his emails.
"And this is when I started to look into this a little bit more,” Long said.
What Long found was a string of online complaints dating back years. When we started calling, we found people still angry about their Craigslist encounter with Jim Collins.
“It brings back memories, and I feel sorry for other people out there still hiring him as well,” Bill Opferman said.
Opferman lives in Tinley Park, and needed help with a roof leak. When Collins answered his ad, Opferman also thought he was a friendly guy.
“[He] clapped me on the shoulder, shook my hand. Again, right away started name dropping, all the people he knew, mutual friends. I liked him. My wife liked him. My kids liked him. He was a genuinely funny and friendly guy,” Opferman said.
Patrick Berry placed an ad for some electrical work, and said he was impressed with Collins too.
“He’s funny. He just made you feel kind of at ease you know. But I had no idea that just the whole time, it was an act, I guess. I don’t know,” Berry said.
We heard the same thing at every turn. Collins always had a story to earn their trust, and always asked for money up front. But the problem was getting him to come back and do the work.
“A lot of delay tactics, and still asking for more money to buy supplies. 'Well I can’t buy this, I can’t buy that, unless you give me some money,'” Opferman said.
“Something’s not right here because he was so on top of things and then as soon as he got the money, and as soon as he got my item, he just kind of faded into the distance,” Long added.
In other cases, Collins did some of the work he promised, but that was a problem as well. For example, Berry said Collins told him the new electrical sub panel he put in his living room was all good to go — when it wasn't .
“There was nothing. It was just a hole in the wall with a box and some breakers that were connected to absolutely nothing,” Berry said.
Berry said he paid Collins more than $1,000, but he never came back.
As for Opferman’s roof leak, he said Collins nailed a single board in the attic.
“It wasn’t even flush up against the roof. So, it was the equivalent to sort of hanging a bucket to catch the rain water,” Opferman’s said. “At that moment, I knew he got me. I knew then, it was a ruse. I don’t think he ever intended to actually fix my roof or do the work that he was hired for.”
We also heard from a man who didn’t want to be identified. He says he hired Collins to be a handyman, paying Collins $600, and then Collins borrowed another $100 from his mother-in-law. Then he never came back.
We spent days looking for Collins at old addresses, including the most recent address listed not only on his driver’s license, but also in a May court case accusing him of theft. He wasn’t at any of them and he didn’t answer our phone calls offering him a chance to respond.
But while we were looking for him, a new complaint popped up online from a woman claiming Collins had taken her for $5,000.
Collins did show up in the WGN-TV archives talking with reporter Patrick Elwood about a shooting at what he said was his favorite McDonalds. We went there three times but he wasn’t around.
Most of the people who contacted us chalked it up as a bad experience and moved on. Police told some there was no written contract and buyer beware when hiring someone online.
Opferman showed up a text where he said Collins wrote: “Trust me. I’m not a scam artist, or a fly by night.”
Opferman ended up hiring a roofing company, which fixed the leak in an hour. He says they told him Collins is, "not a carpenter. He’s not a roofer. He’s a con man.”
Berry’s fix wasn’t as easy, and the electrical company he hired spent two days undoing what Collins had done. Berry’s advice when it comes to hiring Collins: “Don’t. Run. Find somebody else.”
There is a twist. Several of the people we talked with had a surprise for Collins. After their experience, they placed a bogus ad on Craigslist to see if the hard-to-reach handyman would resurface.
“Sure enough, after a couple of hours, he appeared in my inbox using the same handle in his email that said Jimmy Collins, but he signed the email as James Cameron,” Long said.
When Collins responded to the fake ad, Berry says he replied: “I got you."
"And then he cut loose, he never responded to that after,” Berry said.
Long said he went back for a couple of reasons.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed about falling for this scam, but it’s also about not letting this happen to anybody else," Long said.
When Collins finally called us, he said he felt badly about the mini golf bridge, which Long did ultimately get back. Collins blamed it on circumstances out of his control. He said the other complaints were unfounded attempts to ruin his small business and destroy his livelihood.
We offered him a chance to respond on camera, but we haven’t heard back yet.
Collins has had brushes with the courts. He pled guilty to a case of theft in 2010 and was charged in another in 2016 that was dismissed. In May he faced still another theft charge for not paying a Midas towing bill. His $1,500 bond was forfeited by the court and the case was dismissed.
We did find some satisfied customers on a website, but it is mostly filled with complaints. Experts say the lesson in this is to carefully check out anyone you’re hiring online. Ask for references. Even just a basic Google search can help.
All the people who contacted WGN said they wished they had done more before hiring him.