Authorities warn of crooked traveling day laborers

An itinerant handyman stops by and promises his house-painting job will be first-class, fast and cheap.

But he only accepts cash.

When the stranger clears out with the money, all is well until the first rainfall.

Then a horrified homeowner watches as the fresh paint washes away.

Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter often hears stories like this after a group called the Irish Travelers descends on the area.

Their annual visits usually take place in the spring. But traveler sightings are already coming in and, although there have been no reported incidents this year, Carpenter recently issued a warning about the group.

The elderly are prime targets, especially in home repair and burglary scams. Carpenter said they’re usually at home alone during the day and traditionally have larger amounts of cash in the bank or in their homes.

“Older folks are more trusting and more apt to take somebody’s word,” he said. “It’s sad. A good handshake and a good word used to mean something.”

Carpenter said “Irish Travelers” are what law enforcement officers call members of the transient group, who are descendants of 19th-century Irish immigrants and many of whom are based in North Augusta, S.C., he said.

The group, which authorities say consists of members of a larger, law-abiding ethnic Irish community, travels into the local area using high-pressure sales tactics for driveway blacktopping or sealing, roof work or painting. Authorities said there are other people out there who pull these kinds of frauds, but call the travelers unique because of their mobility, organization and preference for working as family teams.

“They demand cash, quick transactions and then move on,” Carpenter said. “There’s no quality in any of their work. It’s shoddy.”

Sometimes, they engage in full-fledged con games, such as the burglary scam: Two people will go to a victim’s door and say they have arrived to measure the floor for carpet that will lower the energy bill, Carpenter said. Once inside, one suspect will ask the resident to hold an end of the floor covering – and while that happens, the second suspect searches the home for valuables or money.

Authorities said the travelers not only work throughout North and South Carolina, but all over the continental United States. In Lincoln County, they stick around for about two weeks and then disappear. That’s when the Sheriff’s Office starts getting dozens of complaints from folks who’ve been victimized.

Carpenter suspects even more cases go unreported because “people don’t want authorities to think they’re dumb.”

The fact that someone actually performs some type of work at a residence makes the case a civil matter, not criminal, Carpenter said. He figures the chances of taking anybody to court are slim or none.

“We’re trying to stress preventive measures,” he said. “We’re urging people to be vigilant about anyone they allow onto their property and especially into their homes.”

The approximately 10,000 Irish Travelers living in the United States are descendants of immigrants who arrived in the mid-1800s during the potato famine, authorities say. Murphy Village outside North Augusta, S.C., is home to about 3,000, they say.

Father Cherian Thalakulam has been pastor of St. Edward Catholic Church in Murphy Village for more than 12 years and knows the travelers well.

“Ninety percent of them are very sincere, God-fearing and truthful,” Thalakulam wrote in an email from his native India, where he is visiting. “As in every community, some do wrong things and for which the whole community is unjustly blamed. They have a very good family life and they respect their elders. So far I haven’t seen any robbery, murder and abuses in this community. They have good family relations and great family attachments. I am really happy and proud to be with them all these years.”

Senior Agent Joe Livingston with South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division has studied the Irish Travelers for more than 30 years.

After arriving in New York in the 1800s, he said, they drifted down the Appalachians to Nashville, Tenn., and later on to Atlanta. Livingston said the travelers traded horses and mules, and some were known as “Irish tinkers” because of their skills as tinsmiths.

At some point in the 1960s, part of the Atlanta community began wintering in North Augusta, Livingston said. They’d been staying in RV parks, but through the efforts of a Catholic priest, Joseph Murphy, they were able to purchase land and create a permanent community.

The village named after Murphy is a striking blend of mansions and manufactured homes. “It’s a very closed community,” said Livingston, who has held seminars on the travelers.

He estimated about 10 percent of the residents are involved in illegal activities. “But what 10 percent? That’s been the problem over the years,” Livingston said.

Travelers are English-speaking, but sometimes use a variation of Gaelic or other cants, Livingston said. In their parlance, members of the criminal element are called “yonks.”

Another common term is “misle,” which Livingston translates as “get the hell out of Dodge.” “Shayjo” means police.

Communities of travelers are scattered around the world, Livingston said. Other traveling groups include the Scottish and English travelers.

At Murphy Village, Livingston said, the traveling cycle begins early in the year. “Yonks” and legitimate workers make “short runs” into Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. They travel mostly in pickup trucks, often Dodges with “Irish” or “Notre Dame” on the front dealer tags.

Travelers come home in time to observe Valentine’s Day – a special day for them, Livingston said. Then they hit the road again, staying out until the Masters Golf Tournament and Easter. Livingston said the travelers love golf and even sponsor tournaments to raise money for their church.

Out on the road conning the public, “travelers are masters of illusion and confusion,” Livingston said. “You think you’re getting something you’re not.”

All transactions are verbal. After work is performed, a smooth-talking traveler supplies what appears to be a contract marked “paid in full.”

“You have no recourse for recovery when he goes out the driveway with your money,” Livingston said.

From time to time, he said, travelers are arrested, offer restitution to victims and have charges against them dropped.

But arrests are few because “they’re not using their real names when dealing with people,” Livingston said. “Nobody knows who they really are.”

When dealing with door-to-door traveling contractors, Livingston urges people to demand a written contract up front, ask for references and call for verification.

And there’s also this option: “You don’t have to open that door,” Livingston said.