After a storm passes through, scammers often come out of the woodwork, ready to take advantage of those in need of clean-up services.
“One thing about storms, you see the absolute best in people, but you see the worst in people because they’re vulnerable and the scammers know it,” Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis told News4Jax on Wednesday.
After Tropical Storm Elsa left pockets of damage in Northeast Florida, Patronis warned that you might need to take time before heading out to clean up because more people are injured after a storm than during it.
“You’ve got to err on the side of caution. The ground right now all through the Big Bend area and Northeast Florida is saturated with the rain we’ve had over the last several weeks so those trees are going to be vulnerable as those gusts of wind, those tornadoes will ultimately cause those trees to fall over, bring down power lines, create other catastrophic problems,” Patronis said.
Patronis joined the Better Business Bureau in urging consumers and businesses to take precautions when responding to unsolicited offers in the wake of a storm.
“Anybody that knocks on your front door offering to help you take down trees or broken limbs and they want to do it for cash or even a check, understand that you will not be getting reimbursed by your insurance company,” Patronis said, adding that if you’re uncertain of any insurance-related or clean up issues in the wake of Elsa, you can call 1-877-MY-FL-CFO to get help.
As Tropical Storm Elsa made its way through the area on Wednesday, a tree went down on the side of Se Chau’s house in Jacksonville.
“Anybody can show up with a chainsaw and a truck and say, ‘I’m a tree expert,’” said Northeast Florida BBB President Tom Stephens.
“That’s all I can see -- the frame,” he said. “But on the top of the roof, we don’t know yet.”
Less than 24 hours after the storm, a card for a tree removal service showed up on Chau’s door.
If anybody offers to do work on your home, Stephens says:
- Ask for proof of insurance, specifically workman’s comp.
- Never pay someone in full until the job is completely done.
- And if anyone shows up at your door and pressures you to make a decision fast, that’s a red flag.
- Your best bet is to call your insurance agent first.
The BBB also has these specific tips for victims of Elsa:
- Contact your insurance company. All insurance policies require you to take action to prevent further damage to your property. Ask about your policy coverage and specific filing requirements. You may need to move your personal belongings to a different location, cut off water supply or have a tarp placed on your roof. Save all receipts, including those for food, temporary lodging, or other expenses that may be covered under your policy. Your insurance company may also have recommended businesses.
- Do your research. Make sure you use a local vetted business. Find businesses you can trust at BBB.org. Check your state Florida DBPR and local county government agency responsible for registering and/or licensing contractors. Get references from friends and relatives.
- 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. Try to be patient when an area has extensive damage, it may take some time for a local contractor to get to you, and this can be frustrating, this is where scam artists can come in and manipulate your frustration or anxiety to hurry up and get the repairs made to their advantage. Do not be pressured into making a snap decision.
- 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 Florida license plates.
- Don’t sign over insurance checks to contractors and Never Sign anything you don’t understand. If someone is insisting you sign immediately, this is a sign you need to find another contractor. Get an invoice from the contractor and pay them directly (preferably with a credit card, which offers additional fraud protection over other forms of payment). Be aware of any documents (i.e. Assignment of Benefits) that give the contractor rights to your insurance claims. If you have questions, contact your insurance company or agent.
- Be wary regarding places you can’t see. While most contractors abide by the law, be careful allowing someone you do not know to inspect your roof and other areas of your house. 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.
The BBB is also warning contractors to 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.
The BBB also says there are some things you should do when hiring any contractor, such as getting three estimates, getting everything in writing and paying with a credit card. Click here for BBB tips on hiring a contractor.
Access BBB’s Florida Hurricane Guide at: bbb.org/floridahurricane