TRENTON, N.J. -- The Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (NJOEM) report it is an unpleasant fact that disasters sometimes bring out scam artists, price gougers, and dishonest operators who try to capitalize on the misfortunes of others.
According to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, there are steps that individuals can take to protect themselves against unscrupulous business practices. As residents rebuild in the aftermath of severe storms and flooding, Attorney General Zulima Farber advises residents to be aware that fraudulent home repair contractors exist and to consider the following before hiring a contractor:
- Since December 31, 2005, all contractors in New Jersey must be registered with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. Call 800-242-5846 to find out if the contractor you are considering is registered or has been the subject of complaints or legal action.
- If the contractor is offering to do electrical work, call the New Jersey Board of Examiners of Electrical Contractors at 973-504-6410, to confirm that person is properly licensed.
- If the contractor is offering to provide plumbing services, call the New Jersey Board of Examiners of Master Plumbers at 973-504-6420, to confirm that person is properly licensed.
- The contract should specify materials to be used, provide start and finish dates, and a payment schedule.
- Get more than one estimate and always get the repair agreement, all warrantees, and guarantees in writing.
- Never make a large payment for the work at the beginning of the job.
- Final payment should only be made when all the work has been satisfactorily completed.
- Insist on proper identification if someone tells you that they work with a government agency or utility. No FEMA inspector will ever charge a fee to inspect a disaster applicant’s home or business.
If you suspect that someone is trying to take advantage of you or the federal government, contact your local law enforcement agency or the New Jersey Attorney General’s Consumer Affairs division at 1-800-242-5846.
On a federal level, a number of methods are used to detect fraud after a disaster including an automated system that crosschecks information with other agencies. Applicants are asked about insurance coverage to weed out duplication of benefits and field inspections are conducted to verify losses and damages for every person who applies.
“There is a system in place to identify the small number of people who try to cash in on others’ misfortune,” said FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer, Peter Martinasco. “Those individuals who abuse the system or take advantage after a disaster are eventually located and identified to the proper legal authorities.”
Conducting audits and investigating possible fraudulent activities is a standard procedure in all federal disaster operations. Potential cases of fraud or misuse are referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
FEMA manages federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident. FEMA also initiates mitigation activities, works with state and local emergency managers, and manages the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on March 1, 2003.