Consumer Watch: How to protect yourself from building contractor scams

Consumer Watch: How to protect yourself from building contractor scams

August 9th, 2015 by Ellen Phillips in Business Diary

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.

Ellen Phillips

Ellen Phillips

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315