Special Report: Just Give Me My Money

Did you know that Fresno County law allows you to open a business, get paid to do some work, and then close it down.

Even if the work was never delivered?

Then, you can open another business under a different name, not deliver on goods, and close shop all over again?

Our KMPH Fox 26 investigation learned you can do that an unlimited number of times.

We found a man who has opened and closed businesses at least four times, has been sued nearly a dozen times, and he has a trail of people who just want their money.

Alma Wolverton of Fresno is among them.

She owns "Pum Bum" a women's clothing store in Northeast Fresno.

The location is in a busy shopping center, at Champlain and Perrin.

But she wanted an even bigger push, to draw more customers.

"You need foot traffic and you need people to know where you are," Wolverton says. "We wanted signage facing the street first, since it's more noticeable for people."

So she began the process in early 2013.

That's when she says a man named "Steve" approached her about the signs.

"He came through my doors, said 'This is what we can do for you.' He was very persistent," she says.

"Steve" told her he owned Copper River Media.

She says he offered to make her signage for $4,000 dollars.

She had called other businesses for estimates.

His was about $100 dollars less than the rest.

"As a business owner, every bit counts," Wolverton says.

So, she hired "Steve", and wrote him a check for more than $1,000 dollars.

Weeks later, the project hit snags.

Wolverton asked for proofs, but says "Steve" dragged his feet.

"He did give us proofs, after a lot of phone calls, five times a day. We were four months into it, and realized we weren't going to get what we paid for," she says.

So, she finally decided to take "Steve" to small claims court.

She later learned, she wasn't the only one.

"He insisted that he had to have the money up front because the companies he worked with insisted on getting paid up front, so we thought, 'Oh, ok," says Brad Castillo.

The former Fresno City Councilman runs Kids Kasa, an agency that helps foster children.

He hired the same man, "Steve."

At that time, "Steve" was with E-Flash Marketing.

"We were looking to have flags and banners made for us for a half marathon that we put on to raise money for foster children," he says.

Castillo says "Steve" did deliver some of the flags, worth about 900 dollars.

But Castillo says the big banners he needed, were never delivered.

So he sued, and won in Small Claims Court.

"He didn't care, because when we called him to pay us, he just said, 'Well, I'm not gonna pay you. See ya,' then hung up," Castillo says.

It turns out, Castillo and Wolverton are just two of nearly a dozen people who claim they have been ripped off by the same man.

They say he lied to them about his business practicesand his name.

"He presented himself as Steve Walsh," says Castillo.

"He went by the name of Steve, his name is actually Dean Hoffinger." Says Wolverton.

As we later found out, his Facebook page also shows that's his name.

A search of the Fresno County Court System finds he has a list of lawsuits, targeting different businesses owned by either one of his identities.

They include Digi Designs, Copper River Media, E-Flash Marketing,and CarWraps Fresno.

"He knows what he's doing, and he's doing it very well," says Wolverton.

KMPH Fox 26 tried numerous times to contact Hoffinger, but could not find a working number or current address.

So, his picture was posted on the KMPH Fox 26 Facebook page, asking if anyone knew him, and asking that he contact the newsroom.

Some posted that they also knew him as "Steve."

Others posted that he owed them money.

Hours later, a man identifying himself as Dean Hoffinger called.

We asked if he would talk on camera, but he said he needed to talk with his attorney.

We asked him if he had ripped off people. He replied, "The business is defunct. It's bankrupt. That's it."

We asked about the judgment Castillo says he refused to pay -- and still owes.

Hoffinger replied, "That is so false. The company was defunct. He got his banners. He just wasn't happy with them."

When asked if he closes shop as soon as things turn sour, he answered, "I had other partners, but things would fall apart."

He never called the newsroom again.

"It is easy for us to start a new business. That's the entrepreneurial way," says Blair Looney, with the Better Business Bureau.

Looney ran Hoffinger's businesses through his system of consumer complaints.

Some had "F" ratings.

"They take money, before they deliver and never deliver...that falls into a scam process," Looney says.

It only takes a few steps to start a new business.

You have to:

-Register a business name at the county clerk's office.

-Obtain a business tax certificate.

-Obtain a business license from the state.

So how often does the better business bureau get complaints about numerous businesses, opened by the same person?

"Where you have taken money from people, not fulfilled on, and do it over and over, it's rare," Looney says.

Castillo says the only justice he finds in his case is shame.

He posted a message on Facebook calling out Hoffinger.

It was shared 16-hundred times.

Wolverton wants others to learn from her mistake.

"Even if they have a legit website, look legit, we learned," she says.

Wolverton couldn't get Hoffinger served with court papers because she couldn't find him.

So, her lawsuit against Hoffinger was dismissed.

That happened in at least three other lawsuits filed against Hoffinger.

A check{}of Fresno City Hall also shows Hoffinger has no record of getting tax certificates from the city of Fresno.

The state Franchise Tax Board is now looking at whether he's paid taxes for any of the work he billed.