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Fake contractors and fake charity solicitations possible in wake of superstorm Sandy

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 7:30 a.m. MDT

Floodwaters surround houses in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday in Little Ferry, N.J. Homeowners won't be the only ones coming to survey damage. Scammers may attempt to trick victims out of their money as well. (Mike Groll, Associated Press) Floodwaters surround houses in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday in Little Ferry, N.J. Homeowners won't be the only ones coming to survey damage. Scammers may attempt to trick victims out of their money as well. (Mike Groll, Associated Press)

As if the havoc caused by superstorm Sandy wasn't enough, now victims are facing the prospect of "storm chasers," scam artists looking to make quick money from other people's misery.

Michelle Singletary in the Washington Post tells about the storm-chaser scam: "One of the most common scams involves workers showing up unannounced at your door, says Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the (Better Business Bureau) that serves metropolitan Washington 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.'"

The fake contractors send runners through the neighborhoods and pressure homeowners into agreeing to have repairs done. The runners get a $500 deposit and then never come back.

Johnson told the Washington Post it is a good idea to get a list of contractors before a disaster — people who can cut down trees, repair roofs and so forth.

AARP gives advice on how to avoid being scammed:

"Before doing any major repair, get at least three estimates. Make sure the contractor is licensed and insured to do business in your area," Carole Fleck writes.

"Check out repair companies by looking for consumer reviews on the (bureau's) website and on social media sites such as Yelp or Angie's List.

"Get a written contract specifying what work will be done, the materials that will be used and the price breakdown for labor and materials. Any promises made verbally should be written into the contract, including warranties.

"Never pay in advance — or in cash. While some companies may ask for a deposit, consumer advocates suggest paying for no more than one-third of the job up front."

Scammers don't just target victims of disasters. They also target people who want to help those victims.

U.S. News & World Report gave six guidelines on how to avoid scammers asking for money to help victims.

"Give to familiar organizations."

"Just say 'no' to phone requests."

"Delete email solicitations immediately." Charity Navigator told U.S. News that email requests for funding (especially from "victims") "are rarely legitimate."

"Specify where your money should go. ... You can say your money should go to storm victims, for example, by adding a note to the bottom of a check," U.S. News says.

"Send money only," instead of supplies.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau warns consumers to be careful about purchasing used cars that were flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

"Authorities estimate that thousands of vehicles may have received damage from flooding in several states," the NICB said in a press release.

"Unscrupulous salvage operators and dealers often try to conceal from potential buyers the fact that vehicles have been damaged by a natural disaster," NICB president and CEO Joe Wehrle said in the release. "As soon as local law enforcement is able to begin the process, NICB will offer our assistance with identifying these damaged vehicles to reduce the potential for consumers being taken advantage of by this type of fraud."

The NICB runs a consumer protection service called VINCheckSM at www.nicb.org. VINCheck lets people enter a VIN number from a car to see if it had ever been declared as "salvage" or if it is an unrecovered stolen car.

"Fraud is an unfortunate reality in post-disaster environments," Wehrle said in the press release. "As the initial recovery from Hurricane Sandy begins, there are people right now who are planning to converge on the affected areas in order to scam disaster victims out of their money while promising to do repairs."

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