Government officials issued a press release last week warning residents of storm-ravaged Kentucky to be on the lookout for potential scams as the recovery process begins.
The state has recently been under near-constant assault from severe storms and tornadoes which has led to destructive mudslides and flooding. The ongoing damage has been so ruthless that large portion of the state affected by the storms has been declared a continuing national disaster area.
As cleanup begins and flood waters subside, a new threat emerges in storm-torn Kentucky – scam artists looking to make a quick buck on the already-suffering storm victims. The threat is so severe it led to the official warning, released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with the US Small Business Administration and the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.
There are a couple of different scams believed to be flooding the area with their particular brand of misery.
HOME REPAIR RIP-OFFS
Phony contractors knocking at homeowner’s doors is a popular year-round scam, so much so that it even made the Better Business Bureau’s list of top scams in 2009. Anyone could fall victim, but these scumbags are particularly prevalent in areas hit hard by storms.
Contractors magically appear on a homeowner’s doorstep.
Some victims might not even need any repair work. The scammers know storms have been through the area. They might say they have just finished a job nearby and have a wealth of materials they are looking to utilize. They claim to have noticed issues with the home and pass off frightening fabricated tales of dangerous situations that need resolution.
When there is obvious damage, they offer to fix it. Whether work is required or not, the result is often the same. The “contractors” work for a cheap price, but the victim gets what they pay for – a shoddy job done quickly with substandard materials.
Most of these hustlers operate from a mobile base of operations and are nearly impossible to track down when the shoddiness of their work becomes evident. Victims are not only out the fee they paid the con men, but also have to pay for the damage done by their poorly executed, or at times unnecessary, repair work.
Even worse, some of these fraudsters show up to a home where damage is evident and claim they are working on other residences in the area; they offer to add the homeowner to their list for an upfront fee. Once the cash is paid, the “contractor” is never seen again.
FEMA offers the following tips for avoiding bogus contractors:
— Never pay in advance for labor. If advance purchase of materials is needed, offer to pay for the merchandise yourself.
— Use Known Contractors. If you’ve worked with someone before and been satisfied, call them first. If their schedule is full (and it might after such a catastrophe), ask for a recommendation. If you must use a new contractor, contact several and be sure to verify their address, phone number and any website they have. Also, always use licensed and insured workers.
— Ask for references. If they are legit it shouldn’t be a problem getting some names and numbers of previous customers. Give them a call and make sure they were satisfied with the work done.
— Proof of insurance. Make sure they carry current disability and worker’s comp insurance. If they don’t, you might be on the hook for any accidents that occur on your property.
— Written Contract. Get the scope of work, costs and payment schedule is writing before any work actually begins. Don’t sign a blank contract or one with blanks on it. It might be a good idea to have an attorney look at the contract before proceeding. A number is provided at the end of the article for free disaster legal services for those who can’t afford an attorney on their own.
— Make sure the work is finished before signing off. Before putting a signature on completion papers or making a final payment make sure the work is done, and to your satisfaction. A good contractor won’t pressure you to sign a pay without first making sure you are happy with the results.
PHONY GOVERNMENT DISASTER OFFICIALS
Scammers are posing as FEMA and SBA agents in an effort to steal identities or make some quick cash.
They visit homes in the hardest-hit areas and pass themselves off as official. Some might claim to be filling out reports and begin to demand personal information such as social security numbers, full names and credit card or banking information. This is classic identity theft.
Others wear uniforms and then offer to inspect and/or register the home for disaster relief, but they ask for a fee to do so. They will also offer to do the necessary repair work or have their brother, cousin or friend call “to help you out.”
Some tips from FEMA:
— FEMA and other government agencies stress that they never endorse contractors.
— Disaster relief agencies never charge a fee for processing free government assistance forms.
— Withhold personal information. Unless you are applying for special assistance never give bank account, credit card or social security numbers. This applies to drop-in visits, over the phone conversations or online.
— Request ID. If you have survived a disaster there might be home visits by FEMA inspectors, SBA loss verifiers, federal or local community relations teams and local building inspectors. Always ask for identification. FEMA officials will happily let their credentials be examined. The IDs will have a photo of the bearer, their name, a FEMA seal and an expiration date.
Natural disasters ravage communities, causing damage both physical and emotional. When these catastrophes occur, with any luck it won’t be long until there are feet on the ground that can offer you assistance and guidance. Be forewarned, they aren’t the only storm-chasers visiting though. There will be sleazy scammers looking to take advantage of those desperate and in-shock storm victims. Stay alert and send them packing.
If you are in Kentucky and think you have been the victim of a scam, report the suspected fraud to the Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division:
For free disaster legal services: