Be Wary of Scam Attempts by "Storm Chasers"

Justin McKinley

Even though countless strangers often come together in times of crises to help one another, unfortunately there are always golden-rule breakers who only see the vulnerability of others as a selfish opportunity.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) urges homeowners and business owners to be wary of "storm chasers" who take advantage of people dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. According to the agency, "some of the most common 'after-disaster' scams involve auto, home and yard repairs or clean-up." They usually involve impromptu solicitations that lead to shoddy work and take-the-money-and-run scenarios, leaving homeowners with no recourse.

"Disaster victims should never feel forced to make a hasty decision or to choose an unknown contractor," says the BBB.

Homeowners and business owners should stay calm, take time to assess the damage and have it inspected, and shop around for a reputable contractor.

To protect yourself and to prevent further damage to your property, keep the following tips in mind:

Be Calm and Pro-Active

"Although you may be anxious to get things back to normal, avoid letting your emotions get the better of you," says the BBB.

Scammers take advantage of distraught people who make quick decisions as a way of coping and regaining a sense of control. Don't be pressured by ploys or solicitations to get you to make an immediate commitment. Try to be just as pro-active choosing a company as you would when you're not under duress. Do your research.

Get Multiple Quotes and Perspectives

"For major repairs, take time to get at least three to four estimates based on the same specifications and materials. Check references, verify licensing, and registration," the BBB recommends.

In addition, don't be afraid to ask your neighbors about contractors they have contacted or hired and quotes they may have been given. Sharing your perspectives can be helpful, especially if you and your neighbors have experienced similar types of property damage.

Be Leery of Unsolicited Pitches

"Be wary of door-to-door workers who claim to have left-over materials from a nearby job or who do not have a permanent place of business," warns the BBB.

They might not be trying to do you a favor. Scammers often act like they have your best interest at heart, and they also might try to stir your fears. For instance, be leery of workers who appear on your doorstep and insist your home is structurally unsafe. Leave the assessment of the structural integrity of your home to an architect, engineer, or certified official. You always have the right to ask for credentials.

Get Everything in Writing

Never fall victim to a verbal contract or a contractor who says he'll do something, but never does. Always, always, always require a written contract.

"Any promises made verbally should be written into the contract, including warranties on materials or labor," the BBB wars. "Be sure their name, address, license number (if applicable), and phone number are included in the contract, along with a start and end date for the work. Once you have found a contractor, request proof of a current insurance certificate covering workers' compensation, property damage, and personal liability."

Never Pay in Full in Advance, or With Cash

While it might be common for companies to ask for a deposit, the BBB suggests that "no more than one-third of the job be paid upfront."

And when the work is done, the BBB also warns you to ask the contractor to show proof that all subcontractors have been paid -- before you make your final payment -- if not, you could be liable.

Save Your Receipts

If you have insurance, check with your provider. In addition to receipts for any work done, you should keep your receipts for food, hotel, or other expenses that might be covered under your policy.

Be Mindful of Price Gouging

Weather disasters and other unpredictable conditions can trigger suddenly higher prices. The BBB encourages anyone who sees, experiences or suspects price gouging to file a consumer complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division.