BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. -- Like moths to a candle, disasters seem to attract slippery predators skilled at preying on the pain and misfortune of others.
That is a warning by officials of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) to residents affected by the storms, tornadoes, flooding and other severe weather of June 3-7.
"In disaster situations, there are often those who are ready to take advantage of such situations," said State Coordinating Officer Jimmy Gianato. "Be especially alert for phone or door-to-door solicitors who hand out flyers and promise to speed up the insurance or building permit process, and those who ask for large cash deposits or advance payments in full."
Consumers should also be aware that some scam artists may pretend to be employed by FEMA or other agencies. Some traits of such predators can include:
- Lack of proper identification - A FEMA or U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) shirt or jacket is not absolute proof of someone's affiliation with an agency. Ask to see the laminated photo identification card; if they don't have it, don't deal with them.
- Going door-to-door - Persons going door-to-door to damaged homes or phoning victims claiming to be building contractors could be frauds. If callers solicit personal information such as Social Security or bank account numbers, they are not official. FEMA inspectors may come to your neighborhood, but all FEMA inspectors will have proper photo identification. Remember: FEMA and U.S. Small Business inspectors never charge applicants for disaster assistance or for inspections. If in doubt, do not give out information.
- Charging fees to be put on a list or fees to have forms filled out - Some scammers have asked for upfront money to be put on a list or demanded fees to fill out the disaster loan application.
- Offers to increase the amount of your disaster damage assessment - This is not wise and is a sure sign of a scam.
- Asking for cash upfront - Under no circumstances are FEMA and other agency representatives allowed to accept money. FEMA inspectors assess damage but do not hire or endorse specific contractors or determine eligibility.
"Whether they are architectural, engineering, electrical, or general contractors, most service providers in the building industry are honest," said Ed Smith, federal officer in charge of recovery. "Sadly, disasters attract scam artists. Some claim to be 'FEMA certified' when, in fact, FEMA neither certifies nor endorses any contractor."
Tips for hiring contractors include:
- 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 applied to the cost of subsequent repairs they make.
- Check references. Contractors should be willing to provide names of previous customers. Call several former customers who had similar work done to make sure they were satisfied with the job.
- Ask for proof of insurance. Make sure the contractor carries general liability insurance and workers' compensation. If the contractor is not insured, the homeowner may be liable for accidents that occur on the property.
- Use reliable, licensed contractors. Call your local Better Business Bureau to inquire about a business before signing a contract.
- 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.