Scammers are drawn to natural disasters.
They know they will find a target audience of people in desperate need of help.
The daunting weather forecasts of the past week gave state residents nasty flashbacks of Superstorm Sandy. And it gave ne’er-do-wells time to prepare for thievery.
Scammers will come out for hurricanes, sure, but other kinds of storms could attract the same kinds of crooks.
“There are lots of people who try to do the right thing, but there are people who take advantage of others’ misfortune,” Steve Lee, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, said before the weekend. “We’re hoping for the best and expecting the worse.”
Your best weapon is to be prepared, and to make sure you’re informed so you won’t fall for a scam.
Here’s what you need to know.
New Jersey has laws that prohibit merchants from taking advantage of consumers during a state of emergency.
Gov. Christie declared one on Thursday, anticipating Joachin, so education about price gouging protections — and warnings to fraudsters — went into full swing.
The law prohibits businesses from increasing prices by more than 10 percent during a state of emergency.
If a business incurs higher costs because of a storm, such as paying higher prices to its suppliers, it can pass on those higher costs to consumers, but not excessively, Lee said.
“The key number is 10 percent,” Lee said.
Violators face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for the first offense and $20,000 for subsequent offenses.
During Superstorm Sandy, many residents found higher prices for hotels, gas stations, food and power generators — necessities during an emergency. About 200 suspected price gouging incidents were reported to the state, which eventually settled charges with 27 businesses.
For the Joaquin-related state of emergency, the state set up specific number — (973) 504-6240 — designated for price gouging complaints.
If you think you were overcharged or you see something suspicious, leave a message with details — the name of the business, the price before the alleged gouging, the elevated price, and your contact information.
“Even if state offices are closed we’re going to be trying to act quickly,” Lee said.
When a storm barrels through and leaves damage in its wake, lots of Jerseyans will start shopping for a contractor.
Before you call any company, call your insurance company. If the damage in the state is widespread, you may need to wait some time for an adjuster, but it’s worth the wait.
In the meantime, take video and photos of all the damage.
Then look for someone who can fix it.
If a non-resident wants to repair your home, make sure he is properly registered with New Jersey.
“Anyone that does business in New Jersey has to register with us, whether they’re in-state or of out-of-state,” Lee said.
Workers will inevitably start knocking on doors in hard-hit areas. An unsolicited visit doesn’t automatically mean the contractor is a bad guy, but you need to be on guard.
While you’re going to want repairs done quickly, remember post-storms are a busy time for reputable contractors. Ask yourself — and ask the contractor — why he’s going door-to-door.
New Jersey has a three-day right of rescission during which a consumer can change his mind about a contract, but you should do some research and dig a little deeper before you had over cash or a check.
Contact the Division of Consumer Affairs at (973) 504-6200 or (800) 242-5846 to see if the contractor is registered, has the correct kind of license — if required — and if the contractor or the company has any complaints filed against it. You can also check online.
Take it a step further and check the Better Business Bureau and do a quick Google search. Go full force with a public records check, too.
If the business checks out, make sure the contractor has the appropriate amount of liability insurance and that any promises made are in writing.
“A lot of contractors who didn’t have the best interest of consumers in mind made promises they had no intention of keeping,” Lee said of what happened after Sandy.
Be sure the contract includes everything it should, and don’t pay in full until a job is done.
“We tell people generally pay just a portion upfront and stagger the money throughout the project,” Lee said. “Make sure the contractor is accountable.”
The fundraising efforts of legitimate charities go on throughout the year, and they’re not often pegged to new natural disasters.
Crooks, though, will try to capitalize on new destruction.
If you want to give, check out the charity with Consumer Affairs, which said any charity that collects up to $10,000 — even if its home base is in another state — must be registered with New Jersey.
If you’re not sure it’s the real thing, don’t give.
“The general rule of thumb is to only give to a charity you know and trust,” Lee said, noting that in large part, established charities don’t solicit donations earmarked for specific disasters. “When you get calls that are unsolicited, that’s a red flag.”
If you encounter anything fishy, give Bamboozled a shout.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.