After a natural disaster, such as the storms and tornadoes that hit Jefferson City this week, community members will come together to help their neighbors with clean-up, re-building, and financial and emotional support. Unfortunately, some people try to take advantage of consumers and homeowners who are anxious to repair their damaged homes. Missouri consumers and homeowners affected by the recent storms and tornadoes need to be on the alert and protect themselves from scams perpetrated by storm-chasers who target survivors of natural disasters.
If you are approached by a company or contractor offering to sell you products or services, take time to ask questions and assess whether the company is a reputable, legitimate business.
Be skeptical – if an offer sounds too good to true, it probably is.
MMLS offers the following tips on warning signs and steps you can take to protect yourself.
Avoid contractors who:
- Use high-pressure tactics such as offering a “now or never” deal or asking consumers to sign documents immediately;
- Demand cash up front for the entire amount;
- Refuse to give an estimate of the job;
- Are unable to produce local references; or
- Ask you to obtain the building permit.
The following tips can help you prevent a scam
- Get recommendations for a contractor from friends, relatives, co-workers, or insurance agent.
- Check for any complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Home Builder Association, or Attorney General’s Office.
- Get at least two estimates in writing that itemize the work to be done and separate supplies and labor.
- Get everything in writing.
- Do not sign a contract quickly without reviewing it carefully. Include an estimated start and end date, the contractor’s obligation to obtain the necessary permits, and any warranties covering materials and workmanship.
- Ask to see a copy of the contractor’s general liability and worker’s compensation insurance and make sure any subcontractors have liability coverage, preferably under the general contractor’s coverage. You can ask a friend, relative, or attorney to review the contract. Make sure you have a copy of the signed contract.
- Get the phone number and street address for the company. If it only gives you a cell phone or post office box, it may be trying to avoid being found.
- Ask to see the contractor’s business license. A business providing services in Jefferson City and Cole County must have a business license.
- Ask for and check references from former customers.
- Never pay in cash. Do not pay full price for services you have yet to receive.
- Make full payment only when the terms of your agreement have been met.
- Take a picture of the contractor’s vehicle and license plate number.
Elderly persons and people with disabilities may be targeted by scammers who lie about the extent of damage to parts of the home that the homeowner may not be able to physically access. If you cannot see the damage for yourself, ask for pictures; work with your insurance agent, friends or family to find reputable contractors; and get multiple bids.
Financial exploitation of a person who is elderly or has a disability is a criminal offense. Financial exploitation includes taking money and promising to perform a particular job that the offender does not intend to perform or knows will not be performed. You can report financial exploitation to the police or the county prosecuting attorney. Collecting and documenting as much information as you can about the identity, operations, and location of the person(s) taking your money will help the authorities find and charge the perpetrator.
Even when a person is careful, they can fall victim to a scam. If you have been a victim of a fraudulent company, report it to the police or the Missouri Attorney General’s Consumer Hotline. It is not your fault. Reporting the scam can help authorities investigate and stop fraudulent contractors.
Missouri Attorney General Consumer Hotline 800-392-8222 or online https://ago.mo.gov/civil-division/consumer/consumer-complaints
Mid-Missouri Legal Services www.mmls.org
National Consumer Law Center – Disaster Relief & Consumer Protection https://www.nclc.org/issues/disaster-relief-consumer-protections.html
Attorney General’s Office – Natural Disasters www.ago.mo.gov/civil- division/consumer/consumer-alerts/natural-disasters
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Toll-free 24-hour Elder Abuse/Neglect Hotline: 1-800-392-0210