Consumer Watch: How to protect yourself from building contractor scams

Ellen Phillips
Ellen Phillips

Q: People have rung my doorbell twice in the last week selling homeowner "bargains." How can I tell if these so-called contractors are reliable? - Larry Leery

Dear Mr. Leery: Smart man! Because many homeowners like to perform their repairs in summer, the season is a prime time for scammers to strike. Woe be to us if we're not savvy enough to spot these creeps right off the bat and send them on their way. While any number of tasks might be necessary, ShopSmart tells readers to particularly beware of the Top 3 rip-offs.

photo Ellen Phillips

Honest contractors may come around after a storm or when working for a neighbor; however, home repairs are also lucrative for knock-on-the-door con artists. Roof repair, gutter cleaning, driveway repaving, and whatever else comes into their evil little minds to pick our pockets can turn into a shoddy job or, if paying upfront, can result in no job at all. The con and your cash skip town, leaving you wiser but poorer. Unfortunately, some of these creeps actually choose their prey in advance, often elderly people who live alone or be handicapped, have unkempt lawns/house exteriors and the like.

When these specialized scammers - aptly known as "woodchucks" since their first attempt is to trim homeowners' trees - gain entrance to the home, their plans jump ahead. For example, the scammer tells the vulnerable senior his roof leaks; when the scammer goes up to the attic, he takes a bottle of water and wets the insulation to "prove" the leak is genuine and the roof needs repair. The poor homeowner can be milked for many nonexistent repairs over a long period of time. This problem is so bad that many states have enacted laws specially aimed against the practice. Check the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's site at or call 202-435-7000 for more information.

Protect yourself in five easy steps

1. Always ask for recommendations and never hire anyone who contacts you unsolicited.

2. Dig into the contractor's background, professional and otherwise. Not only should prospective clients check our state consumer protection agency (, the Better Business Bureau and the web itself for reviews and complaints, but also delve into criminal records as well. While I believe in giving folks who have made a mistake a second chance, I sincerely doubt many of us want a just-released prisoner working in our home.

3. Be sure the contractor possesses the required license for your state.

4. Know your right to cancel. Federal law provides three days to cancel most contracts signed in your home or outside a contractor's regular place of business.

5. Require a written contract. My father always said his word was his bond. The days when a handshake sealed a deal are long gone. If we don't get a written contracts, we're leaving ourselves and our empty pockets twisting in the wind.

Burglar-alarm scams are also prevalent in summer. Legitimate home security and alarm companies travel from one house to the next to make unsolicited calls. Unfortunately, high-pressure or unscrupulous sales practices sometimes go hand-in-hand to ensure potential customers purchase expensive, unnecessary systems or equipment. The Federal Trade Commission warns of salespeople who pressure their way into the home then refuse to leave. If you're in the market for a new system, follow some of the same tips for home repairs, but add the following:

* Perform a background check on the person and the company

* Ask for written estimates from at least three companies before making your decision.

Vacation-rental scams have become a real bugaboo, especially in these days of renting someone else's home and house-swapping. To be safe, avoid listings on sites like Craigslist; always use reputable listing sites, such as FlipKey (verifies property owners), HomeAway or VRBO (provides a $10K rental guarantee for as little as $39 to protect against Internet fraud) or Airbnb, which checks hosts who hold a Verified ID badge.

Another scam is to use a photo of a luxurious property to dishonestly describe the prospective vacation spot. Make the Internet work for you; use Google Earth and Google Maps Street View, as well as Zillow, to ensure the property actually looks like the listing photos. Obtain the rental agreement in advance, and check the terms carefully. Most importantly, pay only with a credit card or with Paypal, never with check, wire transfer, cash or Western Union.

Because it's almost impossible for most folks to stay current with scammers' tricks, check with the Federal Trade Commission at

Contact Ellen Phillips at