MADISON, Wis. -- When flood waters subside, among the first things to float to the surface are the scam artist and the fly-by-night contractor pretending to offer help, warns the Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"Be alert for door-to-door solicitors who hand out flyers and promise to speed up insurance or building permits," says FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Dolph Diemont. "And watch out for folks who ask for large cash deposits or advance payments in full."
Although most architects, engineers, electrical and general contractors are honest, disasters tend to attract scam artists. Some claim to be FEMA-certified, when in fact, FEMA neither certifies nor endorses any contractor. FEMA aid workers and inspectors have photo IDs and never handle money or charge fees. FEMA employees and damage inspectors will also be able to confirm the case number, given to you when you registered for assistance; a scam artist will not know your case number.
"FEMA has been doing a great job in helping our residents get relief, but we are asking residents to be mindful of those who seek to deceive them," WEM Administrator Johnnie Smith said. "By following the tips we are providing, you can protect yourself against being taken to the cleaners by dishonest people."
Here are tips to follow when hiring contractors to repair storm damage or perform any work:
- Get a written estimate. Compare services and prices before making a final decision. Also, read the fine print. Some contractors charge a fee for a written estimate, which is often included in the cost of the repairs they make.
- Check references. A reliable contractor is willing to provide names of previous customers. Call these customers to make sure they are satisfied with the work performed.
- Ask for proof of insurance. Make sure the contractor carries general liability insurance and workers' compensation. If the contractor is not insured, you may be liable for accidents that occur on your property.
- Use reliable, licensed contractors. Call the State of Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) at (608) 224-4953 or (800) 442-7128, along with your local Better Business Bureau to inquire about a business before signing a contract. At a minimum, be sure to ask about registration status, complaints history, and enforcement action, if applicable.
- Insist on a written contract. A complete contract should clearly state all tasks to be performed, all associated costs and the payment schedule. Never sign a blank contract or one with blank spaces. Make sure the contract clearly states who will apply for the necessary permits or licenses. Have a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved, and keep a copy for your records.
- Get guarantees in writing. Any guarantees made by the contractor should be written into the contract. The guarantee should clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible to fulfill the guarantee and how long the guarantee is valid.
- Obtain a local building permit, if required. Permits may be required for site work and for reconstruction. Contact your local government for permit information.
- Make final payments when the work is completed. Do not sign completion papers or make the final payment until the work is done to your satisfaction. A reputable contractor will not threaten you or pressure you to sign if the job is not finished properly.
- Pay by credit card or check. Whenever possible, try to p...