Unfortunately, fires also present an opportunity for criminals to strike. Be aware of some of the most common schemes below and how to protect yourself against them:
One of the most pressing needs after a fire is the repair of homes and other damaged buildings. Many such repairs will require the services of professional contractors. But professional con artists will also be out in force, perhaps overcharging, perhaps taking money in advance but not completing the work or doing the work haphazardly.
- Be wary of door-to-door solicitors. California contractors must be licensed. Ask to see their wallet sized license and call the Contractors State License Board’s toll-free line at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752) or visit their web site at www.cslb.ca.gov to verify the license status and to obtain educational information, free of charge
- Get written estimates from several contractors. Don’t allow a sales person to rush you into a deal. Get all terms of the contract in writing, and get a copy of the signed contract. Under state law, for home repairs over $500, a contractor cannot collect a down payment more than $1,000 or 10% of the contract price, whichever is less. Also, be aware that you have the right to cancel within three business days after signing the agreement.
There are many worthy disaster relief organizations providing food, shelter, clothing and other assistance to victims. But con artists will prey upon the generosity of others to collect money – supposedly in the name of fire victims, but in reality benefiting no one but the fraudulent solicitor.
- Verify the identity of a solicitor. Don’t assume that a solicitor who claims to represent a well-known charity actually works for that organization. Ask for identification and call the charity to verify
- Ask how the money will be used. Charities and solicitors must disclose what percentage of money they collect is used for actual services and what is used for administration, fund raising costs, etc.
Always ask for identification from anyone coming to your door claiming to be operating in an official capacity (building inspector, telephone or utility repair person, etc.). Do not admit anyone into your home unless they can present authentic identification; don’t hesitate to call their employer to verify if you feel uncertain.
Advance Fee Loans
Many consumers may find themselves in need of loans or deferment of existing debts while they recover from the effects of a disaster. But many schemes offering “fast” or “guaranteed” loans or extensions of credit may be nothing more than scams. Some con artists may represent themselves as brokers who, for a “processing” fee can obtain FEMA checks for you.
If your home has sustained damage, you may be approached by a public adjuster who, for a fee, will offer to act on your behalf to settle your insurance claim. After you talk to your insurance company’s adjuster, you may decide you want the assistance of a public adjuster. But before you agree to use a public adjuster:
- Ask what the adjuster is going to do and how much it will cost. Remember, fees are negotiable.
- Get all the agreements in writing.The contract must include a 3-day right to cancel notice.
- Contact the Department of Insurance for more information at 1-800-927-4357 or www.insurance.ca.gov