We’d like to think disasters like Hurricane Sandy bring out the best in people. They do.
In droves, according to Eric Kanefsky, head of the Division of Consumer Affairs.
“We have already well surpassed Irene,” he said of the number of complaints that have come in. “It appears the price gouging is more widespread. It’s not contained. It’s really north and south and east and west.”
That means consumers should stay on the lookout for scams.
While New Jersey has seen many businesses step up to do right for their communities — from offering free food and hot coffee to providing a place to recharge cell phones – other businesses are trying to profit.
It’s the haves selling to the have-nots, many of whom are willing to pay whatever price a merchant sets for the goods we absolutely must have.
“The primary complaint is price gouging, with the main category being gas,” Kanefsky said. “Other prominent areas are generator sales, lodging and food costs, including restaurants.”
“Those taking profits here are being opportunists,” he said. “We have every available investigator in the field investigating these, and we’re under a directive from the attorney general and the governor to use the full extent of the law.”
N.J.S.A. 56:8-107 says it’s illegal to boost prices excessively during a declared state of emergency or for 30 days thereafter.
According to the statute, an excessive price increase is any rise of 10 percent over the normal cost for an item. If the merchant has extra and unusual costs to secure goods because of the emergency, it can’t raise prices greater than 10 percent over the normal markup of the seller’s cost.
Violators face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for the first offense and $20,000 for subsequent offenses.
Hang up on anyone who users high pressure sales tactics to solicit a donation. If they ring the doorbell, simply say “no thank you.”
Since Sandy hit, Consumer Affairs has received complaints of price gouging, and the agency says it’s actively investigating reports by consumers.
Look for price gouging in the obvious places – with businesses that sell what consumers need the most in times like these: hotels and motels, hardware stores, gasoline stations and food suppliers.
If you suspect price gouging, make sure you get a receipt from the merchant. If the merchant refuses or can’t provide an electronic receipt, ask for a handwritten one. Then report it to Consumer Affairs at 1-800-242-5846 or 973-504-6200 and have your receipt handy as evidence.
The more fortunate among us may have the means to help those stricken the hardest by Sandy. But not every charity collects money and goods to benefit the needy.
Some are outright scammers.
They will prey on your heartstrings and your want to help.
Hang up on anyone who users high pressure sales tactics to solicit a donation. If they ring the doorbell, simply say “no thank you” and then slam the door.
If a charity sounds like the real thing, ask for the pitch man’s identification, and also ask for literature so you can examine what the charity says it can do for others with your donation.
Next, check it out by calling Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Section at 973-504-6215. The agency has registered more than 19,000 charities and 250 professional fund-raising firms – make sure the one you’re considering is legit.
So far, the agency has received complaints about charities since the storm.
If you do decide to give, don’t give cash. Either write a check or use a credit card
Some homes are no longer standing. But for the “lucky” ones – those with trees laying against homes, wind-ripped damage and flooding that’s still a significant problem – homeowners are starting their search for someone to get the job done, and fast.
Your eagerness is understandable, but it may also lead you to be the victim of sub-par work and downright con artists.
Ask your insurance company for contractor recommendations, and even though it may mean delays in starting your job, get three estimates. Also ask friends and family for the names of anyone they’ve been happy with in the past.
If you see a contractor truck in your neighborhood, don’t immediately think the company is okay.
Check it out yourself first.
Call Consumer Affairs to see if there are any complaints against the company, and ask the agency if the contractor is registered with the state as a “home improvement contractor.” You can also check online by visiting njconsumeraffairs.gov and clicking “license search.”
It’s important to note that not every type of contractor needs to register with the state as a home improvement contractor, but other registrations and licenses may be required. Check out a company’s status with the following state licensing boards:
Architects: (973) 504-6385
Burglar Alarm Installers: (973) 504-6245
Electrical Contractors: (973) 504-6410
Engineers: (973) 504-6460
Fire Alarm Installers: (973) 504-6245
Land Surveyors: (973) 504-6460
Landscape Architects: (973) 504-6385
Locksmiths: (973) 504-6245
Plumbers: (973) 504-6420
Since the clean-up began, Consumer Affairs has received complaints about questionable contractors.
If you have internet access, do a quick search on the company name and the word “complaint” to see if anything pops up.
Next on your checklist is to research the contractor’s general liability insurance policy. Make sure the policy is valid and will not expire before your job is completed.
And if a contractor shows up on your doorstep offering services, show him to the curb. Reputable contractors will be full of jobs with so much rebuilding to do – anyone who has the time to knock on doors is probably not the kind of guy you want rebuilding your home.
If you do find a contractor you want to work with, pay close attention to the contract. Written contracts are required by law for all jobs with a price tag of more than $500.
Make sure the contract includes the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start date, a completion date, a description of the work to be done and the total price. It must also include the contractor’s home improvement contractor (“HIC”) registration number, list the contractor’s commercial general liability insurance and detail warranties and guarantees, including the brands or quality of materials to be used.
The contract should also include a lien waiver. This means the contractor states that once you have paid the contractor, you will not be required to pay any workers or suppliers yourself.
Also examine the payment schedule. Never pay the complete cost of a job upfront, and never pay cash.
And know your rights. Consumers in New Jersey have a three-day right of rescission. This allows you to cancel a contract for any reason before midnight of the third business day after signing. If you do cancel, put it in writing and send it registered or certified mail, return receipt requested.