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Consumer Alert

Beware of scams after Hurricane Sandy

If there are trees down and repairs to be made, you can be sure that opportunists will be around to take advantage.

Before Hurricane Sandy had moved out of Massachusetts, ads were already popping up on Craigslist for storm cleanup, said Barbara Anthony, who heads the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

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Complaints about shady contractors and other storm-related scams tend to follow about a week or so after a storm, said Paula Fleming, vice president of the Better Business Bureau serving Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Often, the complaints are related to a homeowner getting rejected for payment by an insurer after being overcharged by a fly-by-night contractor, Anthony said.

So, now is the time to filter legitimate businesses from the shady ones — before you run into trouble. “Anybody can advertise,” Anthony said. “You don’t know who these folks are.”

Anthony offers advice for homeowners who need trees removed, roofs replaced, or other repairs to help prevent a stressful situation from turning into a different type of disaster.

Beware of the roving contractor who spots some damage or work that needs to be done. “You don’t usually find legitimate contractors knocking on doors offering to do this sort of thing,” Anthony said. “Don’t grab the first guy who comes to the door.”

Indeed, employing patience will be a virtue. “Don’t act hastily. You need to shop for a contractor. Get estimates. Get them in writing,” Anthony said. “Be in touch with your insurance company before you hire a contractor.”

That’s important, she said, because you want to be clear if your situation is covered, so you don’t run afoul of the insurance company’s rules for getting work done.

Since tree removal is likely to be one of the more in-demand services following the storm, it’s also likely to spawn more fly-by-night operations with workers unlikely to have the skills or experience for what can be a dangerous job. Look for an established local company and check with the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs to see whether they’ve received complaints from consumers.

“You want to have somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Anthony said. “You don’t just want a guy with a chain saw and a pickup truck.”

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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