Super storm Sandy has caused major heartache and headache for residents with water, roof and landscape damage. This kind of disaster repair work requires professional services to make your home or business inhabitable and safe again.
“You may feel pressured to hire the first contractor you speak with because your life has been turned upside down,” said Freeholder Lillian G. Burry, liaison to the Monmouth County Department of Consumer Affairs. “But don’t. You should take a few simple steps to make sure you’re dealing with an honest person or business.”
Monmouth County officials are warning residents about phony building contractors and other scam artists who may attempt to take advantage of your vulnerability as a disaster survivor.
Here are some of the most common fraud situations and what you can do to protect yourself:
Phony housing inspectors: If your home’s damage is visible from the street, you may be especially vulnerable to the phony housing inspector who claims to represent FEMA or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). You should:
- Ask to see the inspector’s identification badge if he or she does not offer to show it. A FEMA or SBA shirt or jacket is not proof of someone’s affiliation with the government. All federal employees and contractors carry official, laminated photo identification.
- Do not give bank account numbers to an inspector claiming to be affiliated with the federal government. FEMA inspectors never require banking information.
- Understand that FEMA housing inspectors verify damage, but do not hire or endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs. They also do not determine cost estimates.
Fraudulent building contractors: Damage visible from the street can also bring out sham contractors who visit your home offering to begin work immediately. They take your money and disappear, leaving behind unfinished work and unsafe homes.
- Before hiring a contractor, check with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs at 800-242-5846 to make sure the contractor is registered.
- Ask for a copy of the contractor’s liability insurance and verify that the policy is valid.
- All contracts should be in writing, and reviewed before being signed.
Fake offers of state or federal aid: If someone claiming to be from FEMA or the state visits, calls or emails you asking for your Social Security number, bank account number or other sensitive information, beware. That information could be sold to identity thieves or used to defraud you.
A twist on this scam is the phone or in-person solicitor who promises to speed up the insurance, disaster assistance or building-permit process. Then there are scam artists who promise you a disaster grant and ask for large cash deposits or advance payments in full.
“Your first and best defense is to know the most common post-disaster fraud practices,” Freeholder Serena DiMaso said. “Be sure you register with FEMA and only work with authorized FEMA inspectors.”
Here’s what to do:
Register with FEMA – then and only then should you provide your Social Security number and banking information. Register by calling FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), TTY 1-800-462-7585, or going online at www.disasterassistance.gov or via a web-enabled phone at m.fema.gov. If you use 711-Relay or Video Relay Services, call 1-800-621-3362. FEMA will not call you to register; you must call FEMA.
Know that federal and state workers do not solicit or accept money. FEMA and SBA staff never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications. If in doubt, do not give out information, and report people claiming to be government workers to local police.
Price Gouging: Excessive price increases are illegal. Check with the Monmouth County Division of Consumer Affairs at 732-431-7900 if you suspect prices are too high.
Charity Scams: Before donating, be sure to investigate to make sure the organization asking for donations is registered to solicit in New Jersey. Ask how the money will be used. For other questions, residents can contact the Monmouth County Division of Consumer Affairs at 732-431-7900 or the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs office at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov or by calling 800-242-5846.
As always, the Monmouth County Consumer Affairs staff has some great information and reminders for you to take into consideration before you move forward with your repairs.
The Consumer Affairs department is a law enforcement agency, created and funded by the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders. It protects against consumer fraud and dishonest and unscrupulous business practices by enforcing the state Consumer Fraud Act and other regulations.
Additional information about fraud and other Consumer Affairs programs can be found on the county Web site at www.visitmonmouth.com or by calling 732-431-7900. The office is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.