Scammers will hunt down all sorts of angles in order to snag their victims. They aren’t above using tragedy or disaster to try to victimize either. They’ll prey on emotion or need and further inflict injury on those who have already experienced much pain.
In 2012 Hurricane Sandy was expected to leave a lot of damage as the massive storm ripped through the U.S. eastern coast and into Canada during the last week of October 2012. On the weekend before the storm arrived in the U.S., the Better Business Bureau (BBB) issued a warning post-disaster repair scams.
The advice given at that time is good for the kinds of disasters that occur and causes damage to a home or commercial building. In its warning, the BBB warned the public not to "let disaster strike twice" by getting conned by a rogue contractor. Some of the contractors that look to generate business in the aftermath of disaster could be legitimate, but unfortunately others are opportunists and/or scammers.
"Storm chasers, door-to-door home repair salesmen and water damage companies often peddle dubious deals that can cost homeowners thousands of dollars and create serious headaches," the organization said in its Oct. 26, 2012 release. 1
"Storm chasers" are people who seek to get work, but end up ripping consumers off. They either don't deliver the services promised or they ask for payment before starting work and then go MIA, taking the cash with them. Many of the scammers promote services for auto, cleanup and home/yard repairs.
Storms can leave a real mess behind. This photo was taken in 2012 after a derecho storm blew through Northern Virginia and caught everyone off-guard. This tree just missed the car in the photo with only small branches resting on it. Others in the area had significant damage done and needed a lot of clean up.
"Storm chasers" try to exploit unsuspecting victims by pledging to help but either gouge or rip people off.
Before hiring any contractor to enter or do work on your home, take a few steps to protect yourself.
BBB recommends people check to verify a contractor is licensed, insured and/or bonded. The agency recommends consumers ask for references and to also check to see if the contractor belongs to any professional organizations. BBB also warns consumers not to hire any contractor who does business “out of their truck” and doesn’t have a commercial or home office set up professionally.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says to also be leery of anyone who promises immediate clean-up, noting it doesn’t save time or money to hire someone without the “skills, licenses and insurance to legally do the work.” 2
Other steps to take:
- Ask the person(s) coming to your home if you can see their identification. You want to make sure no scammers are entering your home and possibly scouting it out to return as a burglar or even steal while in your home.
- Check out the company to be sure it is a legitimately registered business and one that is insured. Ask to see both their license (be sure it’s not expired) and certificate of insurance.
- Does the company cars or trucks have signage or list phone numbers and addresses? Generic-looking vehicles could be a red flag.
- Ask and confirm if the contractor will be actually performing the work or if they’ll be subcontracting it out to another business (who may not be licensed, insured or possibly seedy).
Legitimate business representatives will have no problem showing you the information you ask to see. In fact, they'll encourage it.
Don't Hire on Impulse
When things need to urgently be fixed it is tempting to hire someone quickly. However, experts recommend not to buy any service on impulse just because the work needs to get done but to get at least three estimates so you can gauge what company is the best hire and who will do the job right. Also, don't forget to talk to your own insurance company, as they may want to do a separate assessment before the contractor starts the repair work. Don’t get stuck hiring someone who is charging well above what insurance is willing to cover. Gouging of any kind is common after a disaster hits.
Search the BBB Website
BBB recommends consumers search companies by using its Accredited Business Locator. This tool provides valuable consumer information on businesses and people can read what other consumers say in their reviews.
It is not uncommon, even in non-storm situations, for some contractors to employ high-pressure sales (I see this a lot in the Washington D.C. area – and some of the people going door-to-door are pretty aggressive and present deals as a "now or never" deal. Most typically won’t leave a pamphlet, business card, etc. either). Don't allow yourself to be pressured even if you really want to get started on the work.
If the company and its representatives are professional, they will understand you want to explore your options before making a big financial commitment and they’ll give you information to read over. They'll also be happy to explain and show their potential customers everything relating to the work needing to be done.
Get several estimates in order to choose a good (and honest!) contractor
Additionally, before hiring anyone, ask the representative if the company is willing to get the necessary permits that may be required before the work begins. Insurance companies often want to survey the property before any work commences, so be sure and contact your agency as soon as possible.
Finally, when it comes time to get started on the repairs, be sure and get everything in writing with a formalized contract and never pay upfront in full in cash. Pay by credit card or check so there is a paper trail. Walk away from any contractor that asks for cash, as this is a huge red flag for a scam. Lastly, read any agreement carefully and verify the work and prices align with what you've agreed to prior to signing any legal documents.