Dry Cleaners Show Up After House Fire, Claim That Insurance Company Sent Them

fire_aftermathHere’s a tip that we hope you never have to use: after a house fire, make sure not to hire just anyone who shows up at your doorstep and says that your insurance company sent them. One woman in California learned that the hard way, signing a contract with a dry-cleaning company that showed up claiming to be from her insurer. They weren’t. Instead, she got a $17,000 bill that her policy wouldn’t cover.

You don’t normally think of dry cleaners as predators, but this company were. How did they find the homeowner in the first place? The dry cleaning company says that they were referred by Servicemaster, a company that puts properties back in order after disasters like fires, and that the woman’s insurance company approved of the referral.

The company specializes in cleaning textiles after disasters, and after a fire will clean the smoke smell out of clothing. The woman signed a contract put in front of her without reading it, saying that she didn’t have her glasses handy. Her insurance company sent the textile people, so they should be okay and their services should be covered, right? Well, no. They didn’t send them or provide a referral. That’s where things get confusing.

Servicemaster agrees with the textile company’s version of events, but the insurance company, State Farm, does not. “Any customer with a claim should consult with their claim representative first, prior to signing a contract with a vendor for service,” the insurer told CBS Sacramento, where the consumer watchdog reporter tried to intervene and figure out what happened.

If the vendor shows up claiming to come from your insurnace company but doesn’t name that insurance company, that’s a bad sign. You should also know your own insurance coverage: the representatives told the homeowner and her granddaughter that she had a rider which covers textile cleaning services after a fire, but she didn’t. Sometimes people can use insurance on the contents of their home to cover such bills, but she didn’t have enough insurance to cover her home and its contents. She didn’t have $17,000 in cash sitting around, either.

It’s not clear that reading the contract would have helped when the company showed up at her doorstep on a false premise, but the contract did spell out that she’d be responsible for any balance that her insurance company didn’t cover.

Attention from a local TV station brought the company’s bill down to $4,000, but that’s still a lot of money if you simply don’t have it. If the company really did misrepresent how they were referred and that the woman had a textile-cleaning rider, they may have broken California law. The problem would be proving that they were preying on fire victims on purpose, not just working from bad information from the cleanup company that referred them.

Call Kurtis: My House Burned Down and I Got Ripped Off [CBS Sacramento]