Following the recent devastating wildfires throughout Southern California, your San Diego Better Business Bureau is reminding consumers that tragedies often bring out the best in people as strangers reach out to help others in need. However, disasters - such as wildfires - can also often bring out a flurry of con artists who will take advantage of those who already have been victimized. Fraud can happen to anyone at any time, but an informed consumer poses the greatest threat to the perpetrator of fraud. There is no stronger remedy for fraud than an educated consumer who refuses to be conned. It's up to each one of us to recognize the telltale signs of fraud and know how to protect ourselves.
Your BBB expects the following scams may occur throughout the county over the next few weeks:
CROOKED HOME‑IMPROVEMENT CONTRACTORS:
This scam takes advantage of property owners who have suffered fire‑related losses. Consumers should be aware of home‑improvement scams, price gouging and other fraudulent schemes that might surface in the wake of the devastating wildfires.
Your BBB warns that teams of fly‑by‑night, itinerant repairmen will often breeze into devastated neighborhoods in unmarked vans or trucks, even before the smoke is cleared, and promise to rebuild a barn or shed, or repair a singed roof or minor structural damage on a home, or haul away damaged property - on an all‑cash basis ("cash under the table"). After up‑front cash is paid, supposedly to buy repair supplies, the scamsters will walk away without completing the work, leaving residents with a half‑finished mess.
Also, unethical contractors will overestimate the cost of repairs, figuring insurance companies are too busy to check bids. They will convince homeowners that their insurance coverage will cover all costs, when it won't. After they clean out as many people as possible, these scamsters will blow back out of town, never to be seen or heard from again.
In some older neighborhoods, where seniors can't get up on the roof to see if the chimney or shingles really are damaged, bogus repair workers will say substantial repairs are needed, when they're not. Crooked home‑improvement contractors will swarm to devastated neighborhoods demanding high down payments with no intention of doing the work.
Your BBB recommends selecting a reputable, ethical contractor after references are checked, state license and liability insurance are verified from the Contractors State License Board, written estimates are prepared and itemized lists are reviewed. Collect business cards and take your time to get competitive bids. Ask friends, neighbors and co-workers for contractor referrals.
Be wary of contractors soliciting business door-to-door. Ask to see the salesperson’s driver’s license and write down the license number and the person’s license plate. Check for a permanent place of business, telephone number, tax identification number and business license.
Although you may be anxious to get things back to normal, avoid acting in haste. Do not succumb to advanced‑payment, high‑pressure tactics, such as “the price is only good for today.”
Always have a contract but don’t be pushed into signing a contract right away. Never sign a blank contract, and always ask for a receipt for any payment. Checks should be made out to the business, not the individual selling the service. Make sure all oral promises are included in writing. Be suspicious if you're asked to pay for the entire job in advance. State law limits a down payment of no more than 10 percent of the repair cost or $1,000, whichever is less. Also, never make a final payment until the work is complete and satisfactory.
Take your time, do your research and get a second opinion. Con artists aren't concerned with cooling‑off laws.
Before beginning to rebuild, verify that the contractor you choose has a valid license and a good reputation with your Better Business Bureau. Click on “Check out a Business or Charity.”
PHONY CHARITY GIVING:
During times of disaster, San Diegans have proven themselves to be very generous. Tragedy often kindles the desire to help. But use your heads as well as your heart when making a monetary contribution to a disaster‑relief agency or charity. Be wary of so‑called charities with unfamiliar names or "sound‑alikes" with names that sound similar to recognizable emergency‑relief organizations. Be sure that at the same time several legitimate charities are asking for donations of money, phony charities are doing the same thing.
Your BBB advises caution about appeals that dwell on the disaster but do not specify how donations will be used. Watch out for people coming to your front door, or calling you on the phone, saying they're collecting cash for fire victims. If a solicitor insists on cash ("because the victims need it right now"), think twice. If someone says they're representing a charity that you've never heard of, contact your BBB with questions at www.bbb.org or check with the Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org . If you feel pressure to give cash on‑the‑spot to a "runner" at your front door, don't do it. Don't be intimidated by hard‑sell tactics. The best advice: ask lots of questions, ask for printed literature and send a check in the mail. The charity that needs your money today will need it just as much tomorrow.
Before donating to firestorm victims, please check out the charity first. Click on “Check out a Business or Charity” or visit the Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org.
You could end up forfeiting a portion of insurance dollars by someone who is swooping into town to make a fast buck. Your BBB cautions consumers to be wary about individuals who go door‑to‑door soliciting business in the aftermath of the fires. Take your time and don't make any rash decisions about hiring someone to handle your claim. Don't let anyone scare you into signing a contract, or promise big returns by padding a claim. Before hiring a third‑party to settle with your insurance company, try to settle your claim yourself. Don't be afraid to ask questions to your insurance company. If your claim is complicated, make sure the attorney you select is qualified to handle your case. Ask friends, relatives and business associates for names of well‑regarded professionals in the community.
BOGUS POLICE AND FIREFIGHTERS FUND-RAISERS:
Most police and fire departments are funded by your tax dollars. But, sometimes, law enforcement‑related professional organizations or labor unions will use paid fund‑raisers to solicit funds on their behalf. However, just because the words "police" or "firefighter" appears in an organization's name does not necessarily mean that local police and firefighters will actually benefit from your contribution. Sometimes, fraudulent fund‑raisers will create a law enforcement‑sounding name to misrepresent as a bogus charity and then keep most of the money.
Your BBB suggests if a telemarketer is asking you for money for a law enforcement agency, confirm the fund‑raising campaign by phoning the agency's administrative offices (not 9‑1‑1). If a professional fund‑raiser contacts you, determine how much of your contribution will be kept by the fund‑raiser.
Call your BBB for more information or check out our website for the latest press releases.