A higher-than-normal number of unlicensed contractors are getting busted around Tucson this summer, officials say.

There were eight cases in June and seven cases so far this month, according to the Arizona Registrar of Contractors.

By comparison, for the past few years the consumer-protection agency averaged about two criminal convictions or civil adjudications a month in the greater Tucson area.

The agency says it has renewed its interest in local unlicensed contracting, and it's clearing an investigations backlog - despite a state audit that says customers of Arizona contractors are not getting the protection to which they are entitled by state law.

In a prepared response to the report, Registrar of Contractors William Mundell said his agency is working to speed up the complaint process.

The registrar is hiring new investigators in its Tucson office, making better use of technology and working with police departments, planning departments and the Better Business Bureau, said chief of staff Tyler Palmer.

"We're re-establishing and strengthening our connections" in Tucson, he said.

Contracting without a license or advertising for services without a license is a misdemeanor.

The department also is conducting more undercover sting operations, Palmer said.

In them, investigators pose as potential customers and call phone numbers on ads for contractors they suspect don't have licenses. After they attract unlicensed contractors, they have them charged with fraud or theft.

A sting in Willcox in January netted 10 unlicensed contractors.

Licensed contractors are losing a lot of work to unlicensed contractors who may leave homeowners liable for shoddy or incomplete work, said Larry Hume, a licensed contractor who owns Accessible Home Remodeling in Tucson. He said he wishes the registrar could do more.

About one in five customers told him they've been taken advantage of, he said.

Last year Hume, who is also a member of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association Remodelers Council, said he was hired by a customer whose unlicensed contractor disappeared halfway through a bathroom remodel.

Licensed contractors have to show they're qualified, and 93 percent of licensees don't receive any complaints in a given year, Palmer said. They also must be bonded and insured, so there are consumer protections in place when there is a poor outcome.

high fines

Two unlicensed contractors caught in Tucson recently were ordered to pay high restitution.

The average restitution is $5,438.

• David Alcantar was fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $16,644 in restitution for a job he did in Vail. His license was revoked in 2009 due to unresolved complaints of poor work and walking away from jobs, said Registrar of Contractors chief of staff Tyler Palmer. A recent complaint said he abandoned a job halfway through after the victim refused his demands for more money, Palmer said.

• Curtis Batho was fined $1,000 and ordered to pay a combined $11,795 in two cases in Tucson. He previously pleaded guilty in 2011 in Mohave County Superior Court to theft and attempted forgery relating to his unlicensed contracting activities, Palmer said. His sentence included $6,800 in restitution and prison time. He was released from prison in September. Batho advertises air-conditioner work, gets paid and then installs worn-out units or takes parts out of the air conditioner, Palmer said.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.