Last year, the October snow storm knocked out power to my home for nine days, snapped limbs off trees and caused a leak that ruined my living room ceiling.
This year, I was much more fortunate. The power stayed on and aside from a giant tree that fell across the lawn, we came through without much damage.
That tree, however, drew a great deal of interest from folks who drove through the neighborhood the morning after Sandy passed through, looking for work.
“I’ll make you a real deal,” said one guy, who offered to cut up and take the tree away for a bargain of a price. But when I asked him if he was licensed — and asked to see his license — he got back in his truck and drove away.
That encounter was repeated several times throughout the day. None of the guys who stopped by could produce a license.
A common experience, especially after a natural disaster, according to the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and the state attorney general and the governor’s office.
“Residents should always request photo identification and read the fine print if the person is at their front door, and if it’s over the phone, then people need to be even more careful,” Governor Malloy said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the damage caused by Storm Sandy has left many homeowners, renters, and business owners vulnerable to fraudulent offers of help.”
The state government is promising to prosecute anyone caught trying to gouge or scam residents, but in the meantime, they say, we need to take steps to protect ourselves as well.
For starters, when contracting for home repairs, always use licensed local contractors. Get written estimates (including labor and materials) from at least three contractors and ask for and check references.
Once you’ve chosen someone to do the job, be sure to read all the fine print before signing a contract and don’t pay in-full up front.
“Consumers need to be extra vigilant to guard against being further victimized by fraudsters hoping to turn this disaster into undeserved profits,” Commissioner Rubenstein said. “Know who you are dealing with, make sure they are properly licensed, get everything in writing and never pay in full before the job is done. Consumers should always contact the Department of Consumer Protection to check out the credentials of contractors or to report suspected fraud.”
Scammers are also showing up in hard hit areas along the shoreline, presenting themselves as FEMA representatives and requesting a fee for services.
Some residents have received scamming text messages stating that FEMA is giving out cash vouchers to cover the cost of spoiled food. Those messages should be ignored. FEMA administers federal aid related to storm damage costs, but does not provide funds to replace food.
State officials say that FEMA-contracted inspectors always call to schedule an appointment before visiting a home, always wear a photo ID and know the applicant’s name and registration number. Most important, FEMA inspectors never charge for assistance.
Other tips from the Attonery General’s office:
Those seeking federal assistance should never reveal personal information if the person or organization making the request cannot provide identification showing the state, federal or voluntary agency serving the disaster.
Residents and businesses in Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex and New London Counties who suffered damage as a result of Storm Sandy must register with FEMA by phone or online to access possible federal assistance.
To register by phone, residents can call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). The TTY line for people with speech or hearing disabilities is 1-800-462-7585. The line is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days per week.
To register online, applications may be completed at www.disasterassistance.gov. If residents have disaster assistance questions, they may call the FEMA Helpline at 1-800-621-3362.
“Residents across the state continue to cope with power outages, property damage and other disruptions to normal living and, unfortunately, this often leads to attempts from unscrupulous individuals to take advantage,” Attorney General Jepsen said. “Consumers should take necessary precautions to protect themselves, both personally and financially, and should immediately report any instance of potential fraud.”