How to avoid getting scammed by ‘storm chasers’

In the aftermath of fires, blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes, the crooks come out to play.

As the East Coast begins to recover from superstorm Sandy, the “storm chasers” — as the Better Business Bureau calls them — will be trolling for victims to scam.

One of the most common scams involves unannounced workers showing up at your door, says Edward Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the BBB that serves metropolitan Washington, D.C, and eastern Pennsylvania. “As certain as the weather will cause damage, crews will descend on neighborhoods offering emergency repair service. Every natural disaster, our experience has been the storm chasers come out.”

Typically, Johnson said, sham contractors will send out runners who go door to door using high-pressure tactics to snare homeowners. The runners will tell people that they are slammed with work and that they need to schedule work right away. Some con artists will ask for a deposit of, say, $500. But they never return to do any work.

In some cases, bogus contractors may try to scare you into thinking your home is unsafe. “They are trying to create a sense of alarm. The reason they do this is because they want people to make a hasty or panicked decision. And it’s hard not to do that when there is an oak tree on your roof.”

The BBB has a number of tips, which I will pass on. But first, here are some of my own:

•Initiate the search for service. I’m always skeptical of salespeople who approach me first. When I need work done around my home, I go looking for the repair person and I often start by getting recommendations from friends or family.

When getting estimates, don’t just zero in on the lowest bid. I’m frugal but sometimes being cheap will cost you more. Weigh the experience of the company, previous work, and the materials it wants to use.

Watch the work. Take time off from work if possible because you need to be around to check on the repair job. Even the best companies can have problems on a job. Or the repair may take longer because the company or contractor is overextended. You want to be around to discuss issues that may come up and to try and keep the repairs on schedule.

Here are tips from the BBB:

•Contact your insurance company to double-check your coverage before any repairs. And if a contractor tries to get you to avoid calling your insurance company, that’s a red flag, Johnson said. “They don’t want to have someone in the way,” he said. “The fewer people you talk to, the better. They know the insurance companies may recommend a contractor in the area.”

Get multiple estimates. Rushing to get repairs done will likely send you right to a con artist.

Spend the time to check references. Verify licensing and registration. Check the BBB Business Reviews at

Get a contract and comb through it carefully. The contract should include all work that you want done, the specific name of materials to be used, and the price breakdown for everything for the job. Be sure the name, address, license number (if applicable) and phone number for the contractor are included in the contract, along with a start and end date for the work. Your contract should lay out the schedule for payments. The BBB says that before making the final payment, ask the contractor to show proof that all subcontractors have been paid (if not, you could be liable).

Ask for proof that the contractor has insurance covering workman’s compensation, property damage and personal liability. If a worker falls off your roof, and your contractor is uninsured, you could be liable.

Never pay with cash. The company may ask for a deposit and that’s a typical business practice. But don’t pay more than a third of the job upfront.

To prepare for the next disaster, build up a file of contractors you can use. “Find a tree guy, a plumber or roofer,” Johnson said. “Even without a storm, home contracting is the most inquired-about industry in our service. We get millions of inquiries. It’s already an industry you have to be careful about, so in times of trouble, practice a double dose of due diligence.”

The con artists know that following a disaster, people are desperate to fix their property and get back to normal. But don’t let your desperation make you an easy mark.

Michelle Singletary:

Washington Post Writers Group

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