Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida’s Panhandle, leaving a path of destruction that will take months to repair. As search and recovery efforts continue, Attorney General Pam Bondi is urging consumers to be wary of disaster-related scams and guard against price gouging.
“Contractors from outside the impacted area will soon be arriving to help with debris removal, home repair, water treatment and other disaster-relief efforts. While most of these workers want to help, people should be wary before paying for services—to guard against scams,” said Attorney General Bondi. “Floridians who encounter a scam should call my office immediately. I will not tolerate anyone exploiting this disaster to take advantage of those in need.”
Common scams that can arise following a natural disaster like Hurricane Michael include: debris removal scams; home repair scams; disaster relief scams; water testing and treatment scams; and charity scams. If anyone suspects criminal activity such as looting, burglary or violent crime they should call 911 immediately.
Building Repair and Contractor Scams: After a disaster, qualified contractors are in high demand attracting unscrupulous scammers to exploit the demand. To avoid contractor scams, please:
· Beware of unsolicited offers or contractors offering repairs at a discount;
· Request an insurance company evaluation of the damage before arranging repairs to ensure that repair work is covered;
· Obtain at least three written, itemized estimates on repairs;
· Verify contractor licenses with local and state licensing boards;
· Check to see if consumer complaints are filed against a licensed contractor at MyFloridaLicense.com, the Department of Professional Business Regulation’s website;
· Contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office at 1(866) 9NO-SCAM to see if there are complaints against a company or contractor;
· Research the company and its reputation–ask for references;
· Ask for proof of insurance and verify that the policy is current;
· Make sure a contractor is bonded;
· Never pay full amount up front and hesitate before providing large deposits;
· Read the entire contract, including the fine print, before signing to ensure it includes required buyer’s right to cancel language. Understand cancellation rights and penalties;
· Insist on releases of any liens that could be placed on the property by subcontractors prior to making final payments. Homeowners may unknowingly have liens placed against their properties by suppliers or subcontractors who have not been paid by the contractor. If the contractor fails to pay them, the liens will remain on the title;
· Contact your insurance company prior to signing any Assignment of Insurance Benefits that would allow a contractor, such as a roofer or water extraction company, to obtain direct payments from your insurance company; and
· Do not sign a certificate of completion or make final payment until satisfied with work.
Tree and Debris Removal Scams: Heavy winds from a storm can litter yards and roads with downed limbs, trees, trash, construction material and other hazardous objects. When preparing to have hazardous debris removed:
· Watch out for anyone who approaches unsolicited about debris removal;
· Get multiple written estimates and ensure all debris removal is included;
· Research the company and its reputation–ask for references.
· Contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office at 1(866) 9NO-SCAM to check if there are complaints against the company;
· Check for proof of insurance and verify the policy is current; and
· Never pay full amount up front and do not make final payment until completely satisfied with the work.
Water Testing and Treatment Scams: Water mains and personal wells can be affected during hurricanes, and dishonest individuals may insist on expensive tests to determine water safety. Avoid falling victim by following these tips:
· Ask for proof of identification from anyone claiming to be a city, county or utility provider needing to inspect a water line or well;
· Check for water safety alerts as provided by local media and utility providers;
· Contact your local health department or utility. Local water utilities are required to test water quality on a regular basis;
· Seek advice from state or local health departments to determine what tests should be performed and find certified testers; and
· If in doubt, boil water vigorously for one to three minutes or drink bottled water.
Disaster Relief Scams: The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers disaster relief to eligible victims through various programs. When seeking aid:
· Know that no state or federal disaster relief agency will call and request financial information;
· Be aware that state and federal workers carry identification and will not ask for or accept cash;
· Remember that applications for FEMA relief programs are free and can be accessed at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA; and
· Be wary of anyone who offers to fill out, assist with or expedite applications as they may be seeking access to personal information.
Charity Scams: After natural disasters, numerous disaster-specific charities crop up. When donating to help with disaster relief:
· Avoid solicitors that use high-pressure tactics or hesitate to provide additional information on the charitable organization;
· Be wary of charities with similar sounding names. Some phony charities may attempt to capitalize on disasters by using the names of legitimate, well-known charities or names that sound similar;
· Consider donating to an established disaster-relief charity; and
· Contact the Florida Attorney General’s Office or the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service, 1-800-HELP-FLA, the agency that regulates charities, to determine if the charity has any complaints against them.
The state of emergency is still in effect and Florida’s price gouging law still applies to anyone selling essential commodities or services to consumers in areas covered by the emergency declaration. Please report price gouging or any scams to the Florida Attorney General’s Office by calling 1(866) 9NO-SCAM or file a complaint online at MyFloridaLegal.com.