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Beware of scams after the storm

BBB of Northeast Florida issues top scams, red flags to spot

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With the potential for home and property damage when Tropical Storm Hermine moves through our area this week, the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida wants to protect you and your family from being taken advantage of.

The BBB is warning homeowners affected to beware of "storm chasers" and out-of-town contractors hoping to get your business. While not all storm chasers are scammers, the consumer protection agency says they may lack the proper licensing for your area, offer quick fixes or make big promises they can't deliver. So, doing your research and keeping the following advice in mind, can help protect you.

Resist high-pressure sales. Some storm chasers use tactics such as the “good deal” you’ll get only if you hire the contractor on the spot. Be pro-active in selecting a contractor and not re-active to sales calls on the phone or door-to-door pitches. Disaster victims should never feel forced to make a hasty decision or to choose an unknown contractor.

Be especially careful of door-to-door contractors. Many municipalities require a solicitation permit if sales people go door-to-door. Ask for identification. Check their vehicle for a business name, phone number, and license plates for your state or province.

Get at least three estimates. Get quotes in writing, don’t accept estimates over the phone, and be wary of very low estimates, which could set up a “bait and switch” tactic.

Know your rights and responsibilities. Check with your town or municipality to see what permits contractors need to work on your property. Check with your insurance company to make sure your liability insurance covers falls or injuries to contractors.

Don’t pay for the job in advance. Be wary of any contractor who demands full or half payment upfront. Insist that payments be made to the company, not an individual.

Pay by credit card, if possible. You may have additional protection if there’s a problem.

Get a written contract. Make sure it specifies the price, the work to be done and who will do it, the amount of liability insurance coverage maintained by the contractor, and a time frame. Require a copy of their current certificate of insurance.

Be wary regarding places you can’t see. While most roofers abide by the law, be careful allowing someone you do not know to inspect your roof. An unethical contractor may actually create damage to get work. The same goes for attics, crawl spaces, ducts, and other places you cannot easily access or see for yourself.

To help you, the BBB has released a quick list of red flags to help you identify what it calls "storm chaser scams."

1. Door-to-door solicitation and no registration
2. Request for full payment in advance
3. High pressure sales tactics
4. Lack of written contract

The BBB also has a warning for local businesses: Beware of storm chasers who offer to pay local construction companies substantial amounts of money to use the business’s established name, reputation and phone. They masquerade as a local business, collect the insurance money and then move on, leaving the real business to deal with unsatisfied customers due to bad workmanship, unfinished work or unfulfilled warranties.

BBB's top 5 contractor scams and how to avoid them

1. Advanced deposit scam: Your contractor may tell you he needs 30 - 50% of the project price up front to order materials. Once you have handed over money, the contractor either disappears are starts doing hurried or careless work.

How you can protect yourself: Never prepay more than $1,000 or 10% of the job total -- whichever is less. If the contractor is a professional in good standing, the BBB says the contractor's suppliers will provide materials on credit.

2. "Take my word for it" scam: Your contractor may be very agreeable about doing everything to your specifications. If it's listed in your contract, then chances are they won't get done. You'll have to live without them or give more money.

How to protect yourself: The BBB says make sure everything is written into the project description, and that you and your contractor agree on the project before you sign.

3. No building permit scam: You're legally required to get a building permit for any significant construction project. Contractors may try to get you to take out the permit, making you responsible for monitoring all inspections.

How to protect yourself: Always demand the contractor get a building permit. The BBB says It weeds out unlicensed contractor and gives you added protection of an independent assessment of the work. 

4. Unforeseen problems scam: Your contractor suddenly says the agreed-upon price has risen. The contractor blames unforeseen problems or design changes.

How to protect yourself: Make sure your contract includes a procedure for change orders -- the new work can be done if the change order is signed.

5. Extra materials "cheap" scam: Contractors try to pull this with suppliers that can't be returned. The BBB says taking the offer is risky if you have no idea who they are and haven't checked references.

How to protect yourself: Never hire a contractor on the spot. Take your time to check them out and make sure they have a good reputation. To research a a company through the BBB, go here.

Other helpful links from the BBB