Q: What types of scams or fraud should be looked out for?
A: It's a shame that more often than not, disasters bring in low-life scam artists who try to weasel money out of victims of disasters, just when they are most vulnerable. It may be hard to believe that these types of crimes could happen in Iowa, but it’s important to be aware of what’s out there. When a disaster hits, everyone is looking for quick help to clean and fix up their property. This gives home repair con artists and untrustworthy contractors ample opportunity to walk away with people’s cash without completing work. Iowans also need to look out for charity scams and identity theft. After Hurricane Katrina, there were cases where scamsters attempted to steal people’s identities by asking for FEMA registration numbers and Social Security numbers.
Q: What are the signs of a con artist?
A: Look out for contractors soliciting business door to door. In general, reputable companies don’t seek out customers that way, especially after a disaster when the demand for their work is at its highest. While the individual at your doorstep may be legitimate, try to deal with a local contractor who has a good reputation. Sometimes the con artists will use company names that are close to or sound like local companies in an attempt to confuse the customer. If you are unsure about the legitimacy of a business, you can check with the Labor Services Division of Iowa Workforce Development at 1-800-JOB-IOWA, research online for registered Iowa contractors, or verify with the local Better Business Bureau. In addition, people can avoid charity scams by working with groups that are well-known.
Q: What should be expected of a reputable contractor?
A: A reputable contractor will be able to provide names of previous customers. It's always a good idea to call these former customers to make sure they received a satisfactory work product. The contractor should also have proof of general liability insurance and worker’s compensation so you can avoid liability for work-related accidents that may occur on your property. Contracts should be in writing with any and all guarantees clearly identified. It may be a good idea to have a lawyer review the contracts before signing them. If you can, don’t pay in cash or make large down payments as both options leave little or no leverage with a contractor. Instead use a credit card or check, and only make final payments when work is completely finished. You can find other tips on hiring contractors and how not to get ripped off on the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, www.justice.gov, and Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov, as well as on the website of the Iowa Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General, www.state.ia.us/government/ag/ .
Q: What if a scam or fraud happens?
A: According to federal law, consumers have a three-day reconsideration period for any unsolicited door-to-door sales that are above $25. Complaints can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Response Center by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. Contractor fraud should be reported to local police, the Iowa State Patrol by calling 1-800-525-5555 and the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division by calling 1-888-777-4590. FEMA fraud should be reported to the FBI hotline by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI.