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Harvey Victims: Don’t Fall Prey to ‘Storm Chaser’ Fraud

You know the scammers’ motto – never let a perfectly good natural disaster go to waste.

And in the wake of the terribly-destructive Hurricane Harvey, you can bet that plenty of those nefarious folks will be plenty mindful of that “industry proverb” as countless numbers of people look desperately for help in any form to rebuild their lives.

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On that note, a timely article over at CNN Money is alerting Harvey victims to the threat of so-called ‘storm chasers’: unscrupulous people who swarm over a region affected by a natural disaster, looking to capitalize on the misery at hand through the most egregiously dishonest of business practices.

In truth, you cannot refer to what storm chasers do as being anything that resembles actual “business practices.” These people are the worst of the worst.

Very often, the fraudsters, posing as legitimate contractors, agree to repair homes that have been significantly damaged by the effects of the given weather event. However, unlike legitimate contractors, they insist on payment up front for the work. Once they have your dough…and the cash of other, unwitting victims…they either skip town, or actually do some limited version of actual work that is extremely shoddy.

Addressing ‘storm chaser’ scams in his capacity as spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Frank Scafidi said, “We’ve seen it after every significant disaster, and we don’t expect anything different once the Harvey-induced floods recede."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has already issued a warning to state residents about Harvey-related fraud, and CNN Money reveals that a hotline set up by the Texas AG for reporting suspected storm fraud has already received well over 500 complaints.

And it’s still early.

The best way to protect yourself is not with hotlines, however, but with extra vigilance as you seeking out repair work.

For starters, if any “contractor” is clearly pressuring you to retain their services, it’s time to move on; beyond the fact that it’s discourteous, it’s not the kind of behavior practiced by legitimate tradespeople. Also, if you’re asked to fully, or even mostly, pay for a repair service up front, that’s another cue you should run like the wind. It’s not unusual for a contractor to ask for a modest down payment to get started, and they will often do so to help defray the cost of materials, but that should be the extent of it; ideally, you won’t be asked for any money at all until the job is finished.

The best way to find a contractor is in the form of a reference from someone you know and trust. If that’s not an option, look to those businesses that have an established track record of success in your local community. Also, check to be sure that a contractor is appropriately licensed and insured. The Better Business Bureau can help with the licensing verification, and as for insurance, any legitimate contractor should be completely prepared to provide proof of their coverage.

Lastly, before you agree to any repairs, be sure you’ve secured multiple bids. While it’s not unusual for quotes to be a little on the high side in an environment of distressed conditions, you want to be sure you’re not significantly overpaying for a job to be done.

By Robert G. Yetman, Jr. Editor At Large

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