Scam artists abound after Irene: How to keep your money dry

August 30, 2011

There is something about disasters that brings out the best in people — and the worst. Along with the Red Cross and National Guard, scam artists mobilize, too. They see opportunity in people’s misfortune.

“You’ve already been victimized by Mother Nature; don’t be victimized by an unscrupulous contractor,” cautioned Barbara Anthony, who heads Massachusetts’ Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. “People are vulnerable when they’ve been dealt a blow by a hurricane or a tornado.”

For those who have to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene or know someone who does, beware the scams that are out there already or are certainly on their way. Even if you weren’t affected, but you just want to help, no worries, you’re a target, too.

In fact, post-disaster scams targeting people who want to be charitable got so bad in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that the federal government created the National Center for Disaster Fraud has a hotline just for reporting them: (866) 720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov.

Governors and attorneys general in just about every state that felt the brunt of Irene have issued warnings.

“Con artists pretending to be government officials have tried to steal personal information and money following other disasters,” North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said, issuing a warning about con artists posing as government disaster aid officials.

Two of the most common ways storm victims are targeted relate to fixing storm-related damage: Home repairs and tree removal.

Consumer protection officials warn that roving bands of opportunists posing as contractors will come looking for people who are desperate to get work done following almost any major storm. So-called storm chasers have been the subject of warnings in numerous states both related to Hurricane Irene and previous natural disasters.

“The BBB warns homeowners to be on the lookout for ‘storm chasers’, home repair contractors who follow the path of storms hoping to make some quick cash,” said Janet Hart, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte, N.C. “As soon as Hurricane Irene took aim at the East Coast, storm chasers from all over the country packed up their pickup trucks.”

Some, she said, might actually be able to do good work, while others have no skills — or worse.

“The BBB urges homeowners to work with local companies from their own communities who were doing business there before the storms and who will be there after the storms,” Hart said.

These roving bands of contractors prey on homeowners’ need to get roof repairs, replace broken windows and mitigate flooding. They’re well-practiced in their sales pitches and will make it seem as though you can trust them.

Anthony, the consumer chief in Massachusetts, said victims could find themselves facing high-pressure sales tactics and even getting coerced by fly-by-night contractors.

“Consumers have to be smarter than the crooks who are after their money,” she said. “If a contractor won’t put it in writing, you’re dealing with the wrong person. If you have a contractor asking for cash, you really need to close the door.  As soon as someone as someone is asking for cash you know you’re dealing with a bad guy.”

Anthony said after several tornadoes carved their way through the state in June, these traveling crews pounced.

While it is tempting to seize what seems like an opportunity to get work done right away, you need to be sure of who you’re dealing with. Anthony and others urge homeowners to not let themselves be bullied into making a commitment.

Be sure they’re licensed to do business in your area (that adds another level of recourse if there’s a problem)  and that they have insurance. See what their track record is with the Better Business Bureau and ask for the names and contact information for other local homeowners they’ve done work for.

You can also get recommendations from friends, neighbors and contractors you know in other trades. Many insurance companies will also have programs for matching homeowners with contractors, which while it might not guarantee the skills of the workers, should help you from being ripped off and having someone in the middle should there be a dispute.

Be sure you’re deal is in writing and that no more than one-third of the cost is paid upfront and that the payment is by check or credit card.

It might seem like all you need is a chainsaw and you’re a tree-trimmer, but it really isn’t that simple. Even when it comes to removing a tree that’s already fallen, it’s important to use someone with experience and insurance. The National Arbor Day Foundation, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture, put out this guide to help homeowners make better choices when it comes to tree removal and cutting.

Other scams and potential ripoffs to beware:

  • People posing as working on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and offering pre-approved loans as long as you pay a fee of some sort.
  • Generators and other equipment being sold off the back of trucks. The transactions will likely be cash-only and you’ll no real assurance regarding the source and quality of the equipment or any recourse should you get a defective or inferior product.
  • Emails that appear to come from a reputable charity. Some of these are phishing scams — attempts to get you to give up your personal information — while others are outright cons, trying to get you to give up your money. If you want to donate to charity to help those affected by the storm, don’t respond to an email or solicitation. Instead, reach out to a charity that you’re either familiar with or checked out through CharityNavigator or GuideStar using the charity’s official contacts.
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guess they should not have made fun of katia

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