In Wake Of Storms, Don’t Be Taken In By Home-Repair Scams Or Fake Charities

Over the weekend, tornadoes ripped through the Dallas area, rending homes into piles of wood and destroying lives. Additionally, bad weather in the region resulted in damage to the property of countless other Americans. We can understand the desire to get your life back in order immediately — or to donate money to help victims — but don’t let yourself be taken in by unscrupulous scammers.

Homeowners whose houses were merely dinged up — shattered windows, damaged roofs — by this weekend’s nasty weather may be targeted by home-repair con artists who have no intention of doing a quality repair job, if they even show up for work at all.

We’ve seen this sort of behavior before in the wake of hurricanes and other disasters, and the Texas attorney general’s office has an entire page on its website dedicated to informing consumers about what to look out for when confronting a possible disaster scam.

The key thing is to fight the instinct to rush into accepting the first bid from the first person who offers to fix up your property. You should get at least two estimates, and probably more, to make sure that you’re not being gouged. Multiple estimates may also show that the first repair bid was too low because it did not account for all the work that would ultimately have to be done.

Check out your contractor. Get references from other customers — and be sure to call them. Check with the Better Business Bureau. Even if there are no open complaints against the company, ask if there are any closed complaints and, if so, what they were about.

While an out-of-town contractor — even one with bona fides that check out — might give you a good estimate, you might also have difficulty resolving/correcting any problems after the work is completed.

Get everything in writing — estimates for the total cost, scope of work to be done, schedule, payment terms — and keep it all together in one file.

In Texas, a notice of cancellation, which gives you the right to change your mind within three business days, must be included if the transaction occurs at your home.

Ask for proof of insurance, including disability and workers’ compensation insurance. Without those, you could be liable if any of the workers are hurt on your property.

Don’t pay for completed work until after it’s been inspected, and don’t sign completion papers or make final payment until the work is completed to your satisfaction.

If the contractor is guaranteeing their work, get it all in writing. The document should clearly state what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee (the dealer, the contractor, or the manufacturer), and how long the guarantee is valid.

If you think you’ve been the victim of a home repair scam, contact your state’s attorney general’s office. The National Association of Attorneys General has a full list of AGs for each state and territory, along with links to their respective sites.

In Texas, victims of home repair scams and price gouging can call the Office of Attorney General Ken Paxton at 1-800-252-8011.

How To Tell If A Charity Is A Scam

If you want to help, WFAA-TV has this thorough list of aid organizations, and The Dallas Morning News has a story on how people can contact several legitimate aid agencies to help victims of the tornadoes, but in general, there are certain red-flag behaviors that should alert you to the likelihood you’re being duped. The anti-scam folks at the Federal Trade Commission have this checklist for dealing with a possible charity to make sure you’re not getting hosed:

Don’t be shy about asking who wants your money. If you’re solicited for a donation, ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who they work for, and the percentage of your donation that will go to the charity and to the fundraiser. If you don’t get a clear answer — or if you don’t like the answer you get — consider donating to a different organization.

Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If not, you may be dealing with a scam artist.

Ask for written information about the charity. This includes its full name, address, and telephone number.

Contact the office that regulates charitable organizations and charitable solicitations in your state, The National Association of State Charity Officials has contact information for regulators in each state available on its website.
Your state office also can verify how much of your donation goes to the charity, and how much goes to fundraising and man­agement expenses.

You also can check out charities with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and GuideStar.

Trust your gut and check your records.
Callers may try to trick you by thanking you for a pledge you didn’t make. If you don’t remember making the donation or don’t have a record of your pledge, resist the pressure to give.

Be wary of charities that spring up overnight.
This is especially true after natural disasters. They may make a compelling case for your money, but as a practical matter, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get your donation to the affected area or people.

Watch out for similar sounding names.
Some phony charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization you know to check it out.

Be wary of charities eager to collect cash.
If they say they are sending a courier or offering overnight delivery service to collect your donation immediately, you have to wonder whether the charity is legitimate.

Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible.”
Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.

Do not send or give cash donations.
Cash can be lost or stolen. For security and tax record purposes, it’s best to pay by credit card. If you’re thinking about giving online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.