MINEOLA, N.Y. – Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas warned Long Islanders to be wary of unscrupulous businesses looking to take advantage of customers before, during and after a potential storm like Hurricane Joaquin, and issued tips to help residents protect themselves.
“Superstorm Sandy reminded us all of the types of scams that unscrupulous businesses try to perpetrate upon innocent people just trying to weather a storm,” Acting DA Singas said. “Unlicensed contractors, fake clean-up crews, price gougers and other scammers love when a big storm is coming. My office has convicted those who have defrauded storm victims and stands ready to prosecute anyone else breaking the law, but with a little caution and awareness, residents can avoid becoming victims in the first place.”
Acting DA Singas offered the following tips for avoiding unlicensed businesses and other scammers:
1) If you see something that poses an imminent danger (a live, downed power line; a gas leak, a downed tree dangling over a house, sidewalk, or roadway) call 911.
2) Report problems with water, gas, electricity, telephone, television, and Internet service directly to the utility or service provider. These services should be repaired at no cost to you. Ask for identification from any utility or service provider who comes to do the repair.
3) For downed or damaged trees on the road or sidewalk, check with your town or village about who is responsible for tree removal – it may be handled by local government. If you are responsible for a downed or damaged tree, check your homeowner’s policy.
4 ) If damage is insured, don’t pay for repairs which have not been approved by your insurance company, except for emergency repairs to seal openings or prevent more damage, and notify your insurance company immediately. Ask your insurance company if they have any local contractors whom they recommend. Take photos of all damage.
5) Tree and debris removal contractors and home repair services who provide work in Nassau County are required to be licensed by the Nassau County Department of Consumer Affairs. Always ask to see a contractor’s license before doing business with him or her and verify a contractor’s license by contacting Consumer Affairs before signing any agreement or contract or paying any money. Make sure the contractor shows a certificate of insurance or you could be sued if a worker is injured on your property.
6) Always obtain a written estimate and sign a written contract that includes a description of the work to be performed, what materials are included, when the work will be finished, the price, and the address and phone number of the contractor. Carefully read all agreements before signing. Make sure all blanks in a bid or contract are filled in. Ask what your neighbors are paying for the same type of work.
7) Ask contractors for references and call past clients if you can. Get vehicle and driver’s license numbers, and makes of vehicles. When there is a natural disaster, unlicensed contractors and scammers from outside the region often come into the area promising quick repairs at discount prices.
8) Pay with a credit card or check, not cash. Be wary of contractors who ask for cash payment or cash down payment. Negotiate a reasonable down payment, with full payment to be made only upon satisfactory completion of work. If materials are not included in the contract, offer to pay the supplier yourself or ask for an itemized bill for materials before making final payment. If town or village permits are needed, make sure the cost of such permits is included in your estimate. Make sure that all government approvals of the work are obtained before making final payment.
9) Also beware of possible insurance scams:
Insurance appraiser impersonationIf someone shows up because property flooded, insist on seeing proof that the “agent” represents your insurance company. Contact your insurance company to verify.
Fake flood insuranceReal flood insurance usually requires a waiting period before it goes into effect – this is done to prevent abuse by homeowners who only buy a policy at the last minute when a large storm is approaching. Insurance companies do not insure flooding after a disaster has occurred. If your home floods, beware of fake insurance offers offering retroactive insurance by paying the annual premium up front.
Price Gouging:There are those who will take advantage of the shortage of goods before, during and after a storm, charging far beyond a reasonable price for those items. If you encounter such a situation, contact Nassau County Consumer Affairs and report it.
Many consumer scams like price gouging are enforced civilly by local government agencies and the State Attorney General’s Office, but some unlicensed contractors can face can face misdemeanor criminal charges punishable by up to one year in jail, and under some circumstances, a businessperson defrauding a customer can face misdemeanor and felony larceny charges punishable by multiple years in upstate prison.
Donation Scams:In the wake of a natural disaster, scammers are quick to formulate charity relief scams. Seeing so much devastation, the public is quick to reach into their pockets and try to help victims of the disaster. Hours after recent major storms, scammers have sent out emails looking for people eager to help others in need.
In order to avoid being scammed, people who want to donate should follow these tips:
• Make donations to well-known organizations such as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army. If you do so online, beware of charities with names similar to well-known ones. Check that a charity is real by looking it up on the Internet or phone book. A legitimate charity has a tax status and is registered with NYS as a not-for-profit organization.
• Do not give your credit card or bank account routing number or other personal financial information to unknown charities soliciting over the phone or by email.
• Don’t respond to emails soliciting disaster relief. Even opening such emails could expose your computer to viruses and other attacks. It’s safer to call or visit the Website of a verified charity and donate that way.
When in doubt about a possible scam, including whether or not it is a criminal matter, call the District Attorney’s Tipline at (516) 571-7755.