Q: What advice may BBB provide as result of the middle Tennessee disaster this week? This disaster could have been local. How do we help, how do we avoid scams and fraud?
A: Natural disasters like tornadoes, flooding, storms, wildfires and hurricanes, often bring out the best in people, as strangers reach out to help others in need. Unfortunately, the aftermath of a crisis also brings out contractors taking advantage of those who have already been victimized. Better Business Bureau is warning homeowners affected by tornadoes and natural disasters to beware of "storm chasers" and out-of-town contractors soliciting business. Although not all storm chasers are scammers, they may lack the proper licensing for your area, offer quick fixes, or make big promises they can't deliver.
There are some things you should do when hiring any contractor (such as getting three estimates, getting everything in writing, and paying with a credit card). Click here for BBB tips on hiring a contractor.
BBB also has these specific tips for victims of natural disasters:
Contact your insurance company. Ask about your policy coverage and specific filing requirements. Save all receipts, including those for food, temporary lodging, or other expenses that may be covered under your policy. Your insurance company may also have recommended contractors.
Do your research. Find businesses you can trust on BBB.org. Check State of Tennessee and local county government agency responsible for registering and/or licensing contractors. Get references from friends and relatives.
Resist high-pressure sales. Some storm chasers use tactics such as the "good deal" you'll get only if you hire the contractor on the spot. Be pro-active in selecting a contractor and not re-active to sales calls on the phone or door-to-door pitches. Disaster victims should never feel forced to make a hasty decision or to choose an unknown contractor.
Be especially careful of door-to-door contractors. Be alert and wary if sales people go door-to-door. Ask for identification. Check their vehicle for a business name, phone number, and license plates for Tennessee and surrounding states.
Don't sign over insurance checks to contractors. Get an invoice from the contractor and pay them directly (preferably with a credit card, which offers additional fraud protection over other forms of payment). Don't sign any documents that give the contractor any rights to your insurance claims. If you have questions, contact your insurance company or agent.
Be wary regarding places you can't see. While most contractors abide by the law, be careful allowing someone you do not know to inspect your roof and other areas of your house. An unethical contractor may actually create damage to get work. The same goes for attics, crawl spaces, ducts, and other places you cannot easily access or see for yourself.
BBB is also warning contractors to beware of storm chasers who offer to pay local construction companies substantial amounts of money to use the business's established name, reputation, and phone. They masquerade as a local business, collect the insurance money and then move on, leaving the real business to deal with unsatisfied customers due to bad workmanship, unfinished work, or unfulfilled warranties.
Additional resources are also available from the BBB Wise Giving Alliance:
* Avoid "stormchasers" at BBB.org/Storm
* Report scams to BBB.org/ScamTracker
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga