In the aftermath of fires, blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes, the crooks come out to play.
As the East Coast begins to recover from Hurricane Sandy, the “storm chasers” — as the Better Business Bureau calls them — will be trolling for victims to scam.
One of the most common scams involves unannounced workers showing up at your door, says Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the BBB that serves metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Eastern Pennsylvania. “As certain as the weather will cause damage, crews will descend on neighborhoods offering emergency repair service. Every natural disaster, our experience has been the storm chasers come out.”
Typically, Johnson said, sham contractors will send out runners who go door to door using high-pressure tactics to snare homeowners. The runners will tell people they are slammed with work and that they need to schedule work right away. Some con artists will ask for a deposit of, say, $500. But they never return to do any work.
In some cases, bogus contractors may try to scare you into thinking your home is unsafe. “They are trying to create a sense of alarm. The reason they do this is because they want people to make a hasty or panicked decision. And it’s hard not to do that when there is an oak tree on your roof.”
The BBB has a number of tips. But first, here are some of my own:
■ Initiate the search for service. I’m always skeptical of sales people who approach me first. When I need work done around my home, I go looking for the repair person, and I often start by getting recommendations from friends or family.
■ When getting estimates, don’t just zero in on the lowest bid. Weigh the firm’s experience, previous work, and the materials it wants to use.
■ Watch the work. Take time off from work if possible because you need to be around to check on the repair job. Even the best companies can have problems on a job.
Here are some tips from the BBB:
■ Contact your insurer to check your coverage before any repairs. And if a contractor tries to get you to avoid calling your insurance company, that’s a red flag, Johnson said.
■ Get multiple estimates. Rushing to get repairs done will probably send you right to a con artist.
■ Spend the time to check references. Verify licensing and registration. Check the BBB Business Reviews at www.bbb.org.
■ Get a contract and comb through it carefully. It should include all work that you want done, the specific name of materials to be used, and the price breakdown for everything for the job. Your contract should lay out the schedule for payments.
■ Never pay with cash. The company may ask for a deposit and that’s a typical business practice. But don’t pay more than one-third of the job upfront.
The con artists know that following a disaster, people are desperate to fix their property and get back to normal. But don’t let your desperation make you an easy mark.Michelle Singletary writes for the Washington Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.