Post-Flood, Homeowners Warned To Avoid Scammers

By Zlati Meyer, Detroit Free Press
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 15--The rain is gone, but the potential for scams isn't.

Thousands of businesses and homeowners across southeastern Michigan have begun the arduous task of cleaning up. Carpets need to be ripped up, moisture and mold assessed, insurance adjusters shown around, furniture tossed, drywall re-done, foundations inspected and on and on. And the bills that go along with that can hit five figures.

Even without a water-logged crisis to upend people's lives, home improvement and repair is an area ripe for cons. According to the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, that was No. 2 in complaints in its annual survey of state local consumer agencies.

"The opportunity is there for a lot of people who will need repairs to their homes and there are unfortunately a lot of unscrupulous people who will take advantage of that -- take money from them and either never do the work or do shoddy work," said Susan Grant, the group's director of consumer protection. "It's not uncommon for crooks to come out of the woodwork when there's a disaster of any kind."

The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers that so-called storm chasers will try to take advantage of the disarray.

Potential signs of trouble: The contractor will either want upfront payment or insist that you must sign a contract allowing the business to negotiate with your homeowners insurance company on your behalf. But if you do this, the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula warns that your entire insurance check may go to the storm chaser regardless of the quality or quantity of work completed.

"In more extreme cases, contractors may simply take your payment, completing part or none of the work, and disappear," the BBB said.

The organization explained that even if you have insurance, it may be best to get three or four quotes. Do not be pressured into making a decision immediately. Get references from customers who had work done a year or two ago, so you know if the job held up. Check www.bbb.org to read about any past complaints or other issues.

And always get a written contract that spells out the price, when the job will be done and what materials will be used. "The more detail, the better," the BBB said.

On Thursday, state Attorney General Bill Schuette also advised people to be aware of price gouging. To report incidents of costs that are "grossly in excess of the price at which similar property or services are sold," call his office's Consumer Protection Division at 877-765-8388.

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"In the wake of disasters, scam artists will pop up, often impersonating utility workers and contractors," he said in a written statement. "Ask to see the ID of anyone who asks to enter your home or business unannounced, and verify their identity with proper authorities or the company they claim to represent."

Judy Segaloff of Oak Park chose to hire a local franchise of a well-regarded national chain of clean-up companies to help her cut drywall from her basement and get rid of her ruined cabinets. The mother of toddler twins, who also asked her husband to query coworkers for restoration-expert recommendations, estimated the cost of the project will be $20,000, of which $5,000 likely will be covered by insurance.

"I went through the Yellow Pages the night of the flood and made 15 phone calls. You're playing beat the clock," she recalled. "When he gave me the quote ... I called my insurance company and asked if it sounds reasonable. I'm a novice. I wouldn't sign any document until I spoke to them."

Free Press columnist Susan Tompor contributed to this report.

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