Beware of scam artists
Don’t become a victim twice in the aftermath of the storm. In the aftermath of extensive damage and flooding caused by Tropical Storm Debby earlier this week, many homeowners and other residents are anxious to begin the clean-up and repair the damage caused by this event. Those affected by the storm are in-fact victims of Debby. Local officials are now wanting to assure those victims of the storm do not become victimized a second time by the actions of unscrupulous scam artists looking to make a quick buck.
An event of the nature of Tropical Storm Debby brings out the best in society as many of us are quick to lend a helping hand with manpower and financial assistance for those affected by the disaster. Unfortunately, an event like this also brings out the worst in others who look upon the suffering of the victims as a chance to take advantage of the emotions of the moment to catch residents off-guard as they try to clean-up the damage and return their lives to some sense of normalcy. Sadly, too often, the only cleaning that these scam artists end-up accomplishing is cleaning out your wallet.
Officials with the Columbia County Building and Zoning Department warns that the items listed below are important steps to protect themselves from unprofessional and illegal operators who are quick to prey on people who have already been victimized by the flooding of the storm. Question about the legitimacy of companies claiming to be specialists in restoration of home damages and other contractors for other methods of repairs can should contact the department by calling 758-1008. You can also call the Florida Department of Professional Regulation in Tallahassee at 850-487-1395 or to report unlicensed activity complaints at 1-866-532-1440. You can verify the license of a business you are considering to use to repair damages on line at www.myfloridalicense.com.
If a home owner has flood insurance, be sure to document your damage immediately in order to prove the extent of flooding before waters recede. Residents should be aware that regardless of having insurance or not, there is a process that must occur before you can determine if assistance is available. The process is like a three-legged stool. The steps include a local disaster declaration by our Board of County Commissioners”¦.that has already occurred. The Governor of the State of Florida must sign a disaster declaration”¦.that also has happened. Finally, based in large part by a recommendation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the President must sign a disaster declaration that identifies which counties in Florida qualify for the designation. FEMA crews were in Lake City and Columbia County starting on Saturday afternoon to assess the damage. Local officials are hopeful that the level of damage were of sufficient magnitude for our county to be included. If that occurs, representatives of both FEMA and the Small Business Administration will come to Columbia County and set-up field offices to take applications from residents who suffered from damages to apply for a variety of aid programs. Local officials are hopeful that a disaster declaration will be approved within a week.
A final important matter to consider in choosing who you use for damage repair. BEWARE! If you use an unlicensed contract for your repairs, you have no legal recourse, plain and simple.
Tips to avoid being scammed after the flood
Use reliable, licensed contractors – Contact the Columbia County Building and Zoning Department for information on local contractors. Contact homebuilders’ association, trade council, or your state’s Attorney General’s Consumer Protection to see if the contracting firm has any unanswered complaints against it.
Get a written estimate – Be sure to obtain a written estimate for the job and read the fine print. Compare the services and prices of several reputable contractors before making a final decision. Hire local contractors, if possible. Some contractors charge a fee for an estimate, which is often applied to the price of subsequent repairs they make.
Check references – Contractors should be willing to provide the names of previous customers. Call some former customers who had similar work done to make sure they were satisfied with the job.
Ask for proof of insurance – Make sure the contractor carries general liability insurance and workers’ compensation. If the contractor is not insured, the homeowner may be liable for accidents that occur on the property or to the house/building.
Insist on a written contract – A complete contract should clearly state all the tasks to be performed, all associated costs and the payment schedule. Never sign a blank contract or one with blank spaces. Make sure the contract clearly states who will apply for the necessary permits or licenses. Have a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved and keep a copy for your records.
Get any guarantees in writing – Any guarantees made by the contractor should be written into the contract. The guarantee should clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee and how long the guarantee is valid.
Have work inspected – If excavation work is being performed (e.g., sewers or basement walls) make sure a qualified inspector examines the work before it is hidden from view to avoid similar problems in the future.
Make final payments when the work is completed – Do not sign completion papers or make the final payment until the work is completed to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign if the job is not finished properly.
Pay by credit card – Avoid on-the-spot cash payments. The safest route is to write a check to the contracting company. A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total cost of the project, to be paid upon initial delivery of materials. Federal law gives consumers a three-day “cooling off” period for unsolicited door-to door sales of more than $25.
Cancel the contract if necessary – Canceling a contract should be done within three business days of signing. Be sure to follow the procedures for cancellation that are set out in the contract. Send the notification by registered mail with a return receipt to be signed by the contractor.
· Citizens are warned to beware of scams when hiring contractors to clean up and repair their homes and businesses. Typically, people may show up at flood-damaged homes and recommend expensive or unnecessary repairs. Other scammers may offer to expedite and process disaster applications for a fee.
FEMA says federal and state disaster inspectors would never recommend specific repairs and would never charge a fee for any inspection. Federal officials do also carry photo identification, which you may request to see.
If you are affected by a flood, you should register with FEMA (online or 1-800-621-FEMA) to see if you qualify for aid.
If you suspect anyone – a contractor, inspector, disaster victim or someone posing as any of these – of committing fraudulent activities – make a report to your local law enforcement office. You should also call the FEMA Fraud Hotline at 1-800-323-8603. You don’t need to provide your name to report suspicious activity. Potential schemes involve con artists phoning victims, or going door-to-door to damaged homes, and asking for personal information such as Social Security or bank account numbers. Only when the disaster victim makes that first call to the FEMA application line will the caller be asked for a Social Security number and bank account number, if direct deposit is preferred. On any follow-up calls to applicants, a FEMA representative may ask for the last four digits of your Social Security number.
Ask for Official ID Before Letting Anyone Inspect Your Disaster-Damaged House.
Disaster recovery officials advise disaster victims that loss verifiers and damage inspectors are in the affected areas. FEMA schedules inspections to verify losses within a few days after residents have filed applications. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will also inspect an applicant’s damages after the SBA has received a completed loan application. Inspectors carry official photo identification and do not charge anything for this service.
“Applicants should ask for identification from anyone identifying themselves as damage inspectors,” Ron Sherman, federal coordinating officer, said. “And if someone posing as a federal employee or federal contractor attempts to collect money for their help, report the person and the vehicle number to the local police department.”
Consumers should remember that under no circumstances are FEMA or SBA representatives allowed to accept money. FEMA inspectors assess damage but do not hire or endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs.
“You must first apply for disaster assistance before inspectors will view your damaged property,” Sherman said. “If you sustained damage and have not yet applied, please call the FEMA toll-free number 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Those with hearing or speech impairment should call TTY 1-800-462-7585. Both lines are open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
Use Care Hiring Contractors
Disaster officials caution residents not to sign contracts or make down payments without first receiving written estimates from contractors, and to avoid offers which seem too good to refuse.
“I will be vigilant against those who seek profit illegally at the expense of the Illinois citizens who suffered damage from these severe storms,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “Consumers need to be wary of those who would victimize a second time through home repair frauds and price gouging.”
Also the following precautions should be followed when hiring someone:
Check references, especially if they make unsolicited contact with you or have come from out of town after a natural disaster; Ask if this particular job requires a permit. Most construction and home repairs of major significance require a permit from the county or city. Do not let contractors talk you into applying for the permit in your name. If they do not want to be known to local officials, they may be hiding from a bad reputation.
Get a written estimate detailing the work to be done, materials to be used, and setting a completion date. Make sure there are no blanks on amounts to be filled in. Do not pay the entire amount due up front.
Make sure you have their contact information. Businesses with established addresses may be safer.