It’s really an old story: scammers taking advantage of those in need, hoping to line their pockets.
In the aftermath and cleanup from Hurricane Irene – with many homeowners barely back in their homes as the floodwaters have finally receded – you can expect to see more of the same. Sure, wallops like Irene bring out the best in some people, but they also bring out the opportunists, the hucksters, the con artists.
Complaints are likely to come in as homeowners start interviewing contractors to do repairs.
“For those people or businesses out there considering taking advantage of consumers in these times, they should know that profiteering at the expense of people who are suffering will not be tolerated,” said Thomas Calcagni, head of the Division of Consumer Affairs.
Calcagni said he had investigation teams visiting each of New Jersey’s 21 counties late last week looking into complaints and informing consumers about possible trickery.
BEFORE THE REPAIRS START
You’re home was flooded? The structure was damaged? Belongings ruined?
Once you’re able to safely return to your home, videotape the damage – before you even pick up a single piece of rubbish on your property. Make sure you have accurate documentation and evidence of damage for your insurance company.
If you have a “before” video of your property, all the better. You can present the “before” and “after” tape of your property when the adjuster comes a-callin’.
Then, call your insurance company. After it assesses the damage, you can ask your insurer for recommendations for approved contractors. These will be contractors that have worked with your insurer before, and they will work in tandem to get the job done right, and without additional costs for you.
BEWARE OF DOOR-TO-DOOR GUYS
If someone knocks on your door offering services, be suspicious. In fact, kick ‘em off the front porch (if you still have one). Of course you want repairs done fast, but do you really want a contractor who’s selling himself on a street corner?
References from friends and family members are often a great way to start. If someone you know and trust was happy with the work done by a contractor, you’re off to a good start.
But this is also where patience comes in. If you call a recommended contractor, it’s possible the business will already be booked for weeks in the future. Frustrating for sure, and it’s understandable that you want the work done, well, yesterday.
If you find someone who is available immediately, think about why this person is so readily available – especially at a time when home contractors should be quite busy.
CHECK THEM OUT
If you find a contractor you think will work for you, check out the company. Ask the contractor for a copy of his license number, and for liability insurance policy information.
Then check it out.
Use the license number to make sure the contractor is properly registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs. Call 800-242-5846, or look online at NJConsumerAffairs.com. You can also ask the Division if it has had legal actions against the company or the contractor.
“Don’t let your desperation cloud your good judgment,” Calcagni said. “Take the time to verify that these people are in fact who they represent themselves to be. Contact us at Consumer Affairs and let us verify that information for you.”
A license is no guarantee of quality work, but it will make it easier for consumers and authorities the ability to track down the huckster.
Next, call the liability insurance company to make sure the policy is active.
Then, check out the business at the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org, or call (609) 588-0808.
Even if you think this is the right contractor for you, do some more legwork. Call some other contractors so you can get at least three estimates, which will allow you to compare prices and services.
Remember that verbal estimates aren’t worth anything. Get each estimate in writing so you can compare costs, the materials that will be used and everything else about the job.
HOW TO PAY, AND HOW MUCH
Before you hire the company, consider the price they’re offering for the job. Sure, we all want to pay the lowest price possible, but if someone is offering to the job for substantially less than the competition, ask yourself why. It’s possible they’re using cheaper, sub-standard materials or they plan to cut corners. In the long-term, this kind of shoddy work will cost you more in re-dos.
If they offer you a discount for cash upfront, yes, that’s another red flag.
Also beware of a contractor who says they’re backed by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse individual contractors.
If you’ve decided to allow someone to work on your home, carefully review the contract, and make sure the license number you were given before matches the one on the contract.
When it’s time to pay, consider using a credit card, which offers more protections than writing a check.
If a contractor wants the entire cost of the job upfront, again, boot them out. It’s customary to pay one-third in advance, one-third halfway through and one-third upon completion, Consumer Affairs says.
Paying too much upfront could cost you. Sixty-one percent of those who were victims of contractor fraud after Hurricane Katrina said their contractors asked for all the money upfront, according to a survey by Louisiana State University.
For additional resources, check out Consumer Affairs’ information packet, “Tips For Flood Victims: How to Avoid Disaster-Related Scams,” at NJConsumeraffairs.com/press/floodvictims.pdf.
Also read what the Federal Trade Commission has to say about home repairs after a natural disaster at ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt030.shtm. File complaints at
Learn about settling insurance claims after a disaster from the Insurance Information Institute’s iii.org/brochures/settling-insurance-claims-after-a-disaster.html.
Homeowners who think they’ve encountered a swindler or someone who is looking to unfairly profit from Irene’s damage should file a complaint with Consumer Affairs at NJConsumerAffairs.com or call 800-242-5846.
And of course, you can email us at Bamboozled@StarLedger.com.
While so many people need help, the unscrupulous will come out, tricking those with good will to give, only to have the donations misused or outright stolen.
Before you give to a charity claiming to benefit Irene victims:
• Ask if the charity is registered in New Jersey, or see if it’s is exempt from registration. (Certain religious and educational organizations, and those who raise less than $10,000 annually in contributions, are exempt, according to Consumer Affairs.)
• Ask the charity how it plans to use your donations. Will the money directly help those in need or will it be used to pay employees?
• Contact Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Hotline at 973-504-6215, or check its Charities Registration page at NJConsumerAffairs.gov.
• Read more about charities at NJConsumerAffairs.com/brief/charity.pdf.
If you’re able to give money or your time, consider these tried-and-true helpers in time of disaster:
• Contact The Red Cross at (800) RED-CROSS (733-2767)or redcross.org
• The Governor’s Office of Volunteerism at (609) 633-9627 or (609) 775-5236.
• Visit VolunteerNewJersey.org.
• Contact The Salvation Army by calling (800) SAL-ARMY (725-2769) or visit salvationarmy.org. You can make an automatic $10 donation by texting the word “storm” to 80888.