Avoid Fraud, Scams by Contractors in Wake of Disasters

The aftermath of storms and tornadoes as deadly as those that shredded Joplin, Mo., and more recently Moore, Okla., leave residents devastated and in shock. With their homes in ruin or lost completely, many are in no shape to make decisions.

Yet, they must.

Enter, contractors who are more than happy to line their own pockets at the expense of homeowners who are trying desperately to rebuild.

While contractor fraud abounds after almost every natural disaster, it was at a fever pitch after Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans in 2005. Since then, the feds created the Disaster Fraud Task Force. However, that didn’t stop one of 61 “contractors” that was recently netted in a New York sting operation for allegedly taking $80,000 from a Hurricane Sandy victim.

“When the flood waters recede, that’s when fraud comes to the surface,” says Neal Buccino of New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs.

Unpredictable at best, hurricane season can last until November in Florida and parts of the East Coast, while tornadoes can strike any time of the year. To that point, here are some scams to be aware of:

•    Insists on Cash Only. Some “storm chasers” (as these predators are called) will demand full payment up front before they can begin work. If this is the case, warning bells should be going off. According to the Insurance Information Institute, one common scam is for a “contractor” to convince a homeowner that a large deposit must be made before they start repairs. “Frequently, the job will be started, but not completed, and the con artists are never heard from again,” cautions the organization.

•    Cuts Corners and Uses Second-Class Materials. If you want your repairs to last longer than a two-celebrity marriage, take some basic precautions such as using local home contractors who are licensed, bonded and insured.

•    Refuses to Provide References. Any local contractor worth his salt will provide numerous references upon request. One great tip, courtesy of the National Center for the Prevention of Home Improvement Fraud, is to get four references. “Contractors come prepared with three,” says the center’s Phae Howard.

The problem isn’t that most contractors are dishonest—they aren’t, adds Howard, “It’s just that some dishonest people pretend to be contractors.”

To ensure that you have a reputable roofing contractor, you might want to check with GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer. Through its website (www.gaf.com), you can do a search for “Master Elite” roofing contractors in your area that have passed the company’s rigorous professional standards. In addition, the designation entitles them to offer you enhanced system warranties.

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