How scammers operate
When a community is in the midst of cleaning up after a disaster, rip-off artists know that opportunities await. Home owners are desperate to get work done and, because of the amount of cleanup and repairs needed, local contractors often are overwhelmed by demand.
Within days of a disaster, out-of-state contractors (and those who just call themselves contractors) will begin showing up. They’ll tack up signs in public places and on trees, advertising their services and their cell phone numbers, or they’ll go door-to-door.
Typically, they’ll offer to do the work for a certain price, then ask for a portion of the cost up front — in cash. With money in hand, they’ll say they need to get tools or supplies, then disappear — forever.
Protect yourself from scams
That was the recent experience in Massachusetts, which had to deal with both the aftermath of tornadoes and the remnants of a hurricane in 2011.
Barbara Anthony, who heads the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, urges home owners who are dealing with a disaster cleanup to try and avoid the pressure of the moment that often forces costly decisions.
Anthony’s advice for avoiding scams:
- Always get the proposal in writing.
- Never pay more than one-third of the cost of a job up-front.
- Resist any attempt to force you to make a decision on the spot.
- Don’t pay in cash.
“Consumers have to be smarter than the crooks who are after their money,” Anthony says. “Don’t fall for the first offer that comes along. If a contractor won’t put it in writing, you’re dealing with the wrong person.”
The demand for cash is typical of a fly-by-night opportunist. And it should serve as a warning sign to any home owner.
“If you have a contractor asking for cash, you really need to close the door,” Anthony says. “As soon as someone is asking for cash, you know you’re dealing with a bad guy.”
Anthony and federal authorities, who frequently issue warnings following disasters, suggest looking to local businesses first. Why? They’re likely to have a business address you can check, and they’re more likely to provide follow-up and respond to your questions. After all, they have a reputation within the community to uphold.
Also, make sure they are in compliance with local and state regulations for contractors, such as having liability and worker’s compensation insurance. Ask for references and the names of the contractor’s suppliers.
In addition to shady contractors, other types of scam artists may try to take advantage of you after a disaster — knowing that many home owners will have disaster insurance checks or government payouts in hand.
A popular scam is to ask for charitable donations to disaster-related causes, such as shelters and food for those forced from their homes.
The Federal Trade Commission suggests the following anti-scam strategies:
- Donate only to charities you know and trust.
- Don’t give out personal or financial information when solicited for donations.
- Don’t give or send cash.
If you’re the victim of a disaster related fraud, the federal government has a special task force set up to investigate. Contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 877-623-3423 or email email@example.com.