Tips to Avoid Hurricane Sandy Scams
Beware of price gouging and home improvement, real estate appraisal charity and cyber scams. There are unscrupulous business and scam artists who may try to take advantage of vulnerable storm victims and charitable New Yorkers in the aftermath of a disaster and in the rebuilding process.
Possible scams to watch out for
- Form completion services - Beware of people charging a fee to help you complete disaster assistance forms, such as FEMA or SBA, or obtaining assistance checks. These services are provided free through FEMA and the Red Cross.
- Phony Inspectors - Never let anyone in until you have verified they have the appropriate credentials. Always ask for a telephone number so you can confirm the inspector is working for an authorized agency.
- Government Grant Offers - Be aware of entities offering "free grant money" for flood repair or disaster relief. A true grant is free and never requires any up front fees or repayment. Check with a regional or state economic development office to see if they know of grant programs for which you might qualify, or contact your local social service agency for information or assistance.
- Advance Fee Loans - Advance fee loans are illegal. Ignore any company that "guarantees" you will receive a loan. Dishonest operators will charge a processing fee, and then promise they will find a lender. It is illegal to charge an up-front fee.
- Water Testing & Purifiers - Monitor local news media for instructions from health authorities regarding water safety and purification. Avoid offers for "free" home water testing, and be skeptical of claims that an in-home test shows your water is unsafe. If you have questions about the safety of your water, contact your local public health authority.
Some businesses raise their prices excessively on essential goods and services like drinking water, ice, groceries, fuel, towing, and car and home repairs. State law prohibits excessive increases in prices for essential goods and services during times of market disturbance, such as after a disaster.
If you feel that you are being unfairly charged for goods or services such as drinking water, food, towing, or any other necessity, raise the issue of price gouging with the provider. If that does not solve the problem, you can report the merchant to local law enforcement or the Attorney General.
Home Improvement Scams
There are unscrupulous business and scammers who may prey on storm victims seeking to repair their home. We urge people who have experienced storm damage to take certain precautions when cleaning up and making repair decisions.
Beware of anyone who:
- Comes to your home or calls you on the phone and offers to make repairs.
- Tells you that you must make repairs immediately.
- Talks too fast to confuse you and pressures you to sign a contract immediately.
- Tells you that they are doing work in your neighborhood and that they have extra materials left from another job.
- Offers a discounted price or discounts if you refer others, but only if you buy today.
- Tells you something that sounds too good to be true. It probably is not true!
- Is not an established local business, but has come to the area from somewhere else to "help."
Some suggestions for the safe way to find a contractor to repair your home.
- Check out contractors. Is the company reputable? How long has it been in business? Ask for references and then check them out. Make sure the company is licensed, bonded, and insured. Ask to see its insurance policy or certificate of insurance. There are on-line resources for finding out other people's experience with contractors.
- Get at least two estimates. Many companies give free inspections and written estimates -- get two or three before choosing a contractor. Remember that the lowest price is not always the best deal. Compare costs, materials, and methods suggested by different companies to decide what materials and methods are best for your home.
- Insist on a written contract that includes a detailed description of the work to be done and specifies exactly what materials will be used and their quality. The contract should include starting and estimated completion dates. The terms, including the price, finance charges and payments, should be what you agreed on. If not, do not sign it! Be sure to get a copy of everything you sign when you sign it.
- Ask if there is a guarantee or warranty. If so, make sure it is in writing. If the company won't put its promises in writing, look for another company which will.
- Do not sign the contract until you read it carefully. If the salesperson pressures you to sign before you read and understand the entire contract - don't sign it! Never rely on the salesperson to read or explain the contract to you.
- Do not pay for work in advance.
- Inspect all of the work very carefully to make sure it was done properly. If you have any doubts or questions, do NOT make your final payment or sign a "completion certificate" until the work is properly finished.
If you think you have been the victim of a scam, you should consult a lawyer immediately. There are time deadlines to cancel sales and pursue legal claims. You can also contact the Department of Financial Services for insurance related scams, or your district attorney or the Attorney General's Office
Real Estate Appraiser Scams
Home owners may be seeking a real estate appraisal of their home. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when engaging a real estate appraiser:
Charity Related Scams
After a disaster it is natural that those who were not harmed want to help others who were. Indeed, that help is essential when there serious damage and many people have suffered major losses.
But be sure that the money you give actually reaches those in need. It is best to give to charities that you already know. Most reputable charities will not call and ask for donations or come to your door. Also, beware of email requests, which may not really be from the organization named. It is safer to go to the website of the organization yourself and make your donation there.
Consumers who need further help should feel free to contact the New York State Department of Financial Services' Consumer Services Bureau at 800-342-3736 which operates from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Disaster related calls only should go to the disaster hotline at 800-339-1759, which will be open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. for as long as needed.
As disaster relief efforts continue for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, many individuals feel moved to contribute to assistance programs and while doing so, may fall prey to phishing scams. Below are some helpful tips to avoid being a victim of disaster fraud:
- Ensure that any computer used to connect to the Internet has proper security measures in place. Use and maintain anti-virus software and keep your application and operating system patches up-to-date.
- Do not respond to unsolicited e-mails from unknown and untrusted sources.
- Do not open any attachments contained in suspicious e-mails.
- Do not respond to e-mails requesting personal information or that ask you to "verify your information" or to "confirm your user-id and password."
- Beware of e-mails that reference any consequences should you not "verify your information."
- Be cautious about all communications you receive including those purported to be from "trusted entities" and be careful when clicking links contained within those messages.
- If an e-mail appears to be a phishing communication, do not respond. Delete it.
- Do not enter personal information in a pop-up screen. Providing such information may compromise your identity and increase the odds of identity theft.