Sadly, September finds thousands of Americans facing unparalleled property damage as a result of Hurricane Irma and Harvey’s recent devastation. If dealing with the toll of the damage alone is not daunting enough, many individuals can fall prey to unscrupulous contractors. These heartless scammers try to take advantage of a challenging, emotional situation for personal gain. While you cannot prevent the path of a storm, you can protect yourself from these far too common predatory hurricane cleanup scams.
Follow these simple tips to help ensure you select an honest, legitimate contractor and avoid the throngs of Storm Chasers just looking to make a quick buck:
Folks certainly don’t call these heartless swindlers Storm Chasers for nothing! Unethical contractors must continually seek business in new storm-impacted areas to avoid facing responsibility for their predatory actions. Dealing with established, local contractors, is almost always a safer bet. Spending locally can take more time in storm-impacted areas, but the wait is often worth the result. Remember to ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations based on their own experiences!
Learn Local Licensing Requirements:
Anyone hiring a contractor to work in their home should familiarize themselves with the licensing requirements in their area BEFORE interviewing potential workers. You can find a list of relevant state consumer protection agencies here.
Research Potential Hires’ Licenses:
Once you are familiar with the licensing requirements in your area, ensure that anyone performing work for you is fully licensed.
Never sign anything BEFORE you research a contractor’s license.
Request a physical copy of their license upon arrival at your property.
Don’t trust the contractor’s word alone and always confirm everything.
Contact the appropriate license regulatory board to confirm the company’s license is active and in good standing.
In addition to a license, contractors also need to be insured to protect you from getting stuck with the bill in the event problems arise.
Check, Check, Check and CHECK AGAIN:
There is no substitute for good old-fashioned effort when it comes to researching potential contractors. Following a serious storm, individuals often want damage repaired as quickly as possible to help restore feelings of normalcy. While certain areas must be addressed immediately for safety, the more you research in advance, the less likely you are to fall victim to predatory contractors.
Ask all contractors for photo ID and make a copy for your records.
Research potential contractors through all available online resources.
Contact your homeowners or renters insurance company and inquire about prospective hires. Insurers often keep records regarding past contractor scam claims.
Inquire with your family, neighbors and others in the community for any recommendations or concerns.
Hire an experienced private investigator to fully research potential hires on your behalf.
Pay Attention to the Paperwork:
As the old adage goes, the devil is in the details. Predatory contractors hate paperwork because it makes it significantly more difficult for them to exploit potential victims. Always put it on paper.
Contractor estimates should include:
The contractor’s (and or company’s) name, address, phone number and license number
An accurate description of the work (including everything they will do and the completion date)
A list of all the required materials and estimated material cost
A detailed bid for the job (including labor and other costs)
Fully examine and read all contracts to ensure no blank fields remain. Scammers will often alter these at a later date.
Initial every page of the contract and estimate to help prevent alteration.
Always ask for a copy of signed documents BEFORE the documents leave your possession.
Remember, contracts signed in your home (and some other locations) can be cancelled within 3 days under the FTC’s Cooling-Off Rule. Additional info available via link.
Create Paper Trail Protection:
If cash is a contractor scammer’s best friend, then an easily traceable paper trail is probably their worst enemy.
ALWAYS pay by credit card if possible. It creates a solid paper trail and may also provide additional protection in the event of a dispute.
If credit card payments are not possible, pay the contractor by check.
NEVER pay contractors in cash.
Avoid lump sum payments, both in advance and at the conclusion.
Pay for services incrementally, over the course of a project to help minimize your potential loss.
Keep detailed records of all pertinent items (including invoices, payments, contracts, estimates, conversations and receipts)
Photograph all storm damage and contractor work (at varying intervals).
Americans will spend billions of dollars in their effort to recover from these recent catastrophic storms. The sheer volume of recovery of makes the potential for predatory contractor scams almost unavoidable. While they will always exist, you can avoid them. Follow the steps in this article and protect yourself and your property from these low-life storm chasers.
If researching potential contractors seems overwhelming, you can always hire a license private investigator to help out with the legwork. Many have experience with fraud investigations and can easily spot scammer red flags from a mile away.
Above all else, always trust your instincts. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.
If you think you are a victim of a hurricane damage scheme you should contact The National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline. They are available 24/7 via phone, fax or email to assist you.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline:
Phone: (866) 720-5721 Fax: (225) 334-4707 Email: email@example.com