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Attorney General warns against storm-related scams

Posted April 18, 2011 12:04 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2011 5:51 p.m. EDT

— Attorney General Roy Cooper warned consumers on Monday to watch out for scams related to the tornadoes and storms that swept through the state on Saturday.

“Scammers use natural disasters and other tragedies to prey on desperate, unsuspecting victims,” Cooper said in a press release. “Don’t let con artists use this storm to take your money and run.”

While the vast majority of contractors, tree removal companies and car repair shops in North Carolina are good business people, Cooper said, some unscrupulous people travel to areas that have been hit by natural disasters to take advantage of consumers.

North Carolina residents should report scams and fraud to Cooper’s office by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM within the state or by filing a consumer complaint online.

Cooper offered these tips: 

  • Beware of fake disaster officials. This is a common ploy for burglars or people pushing expensive or unnecessary repairs. Ask for identification for anyone who claims to be a government official.
  • Contact your insurance company. Some insurance companies require an adjuster’s approval before work can be done. Take pictures and videos of the damage, if possible. Cover holes in your roof or walls with a tarp to prevent additional damage if you can do so safely.
  • Do not pay for work up front. Inspect the work and make sure you are satisfied before you pay. A reasonable down-payment may be required for some projects, but don’t pay anything without getting a written contract. Avoid paying with cash; use a check or a credit card instead.
  • Watch out for brokers who promise so-called “guaranteed” loans from FEMA, especially if they ask for an upfront payment. FEMA does not charge an application fee. Verify the credentials of people offering low-interest government loans, and contact the agency directly to verify the person’s employment.
  • Beware of any contractor who tries to rush you or who comes to your home to solicit work. If an offer is only good now or never, find someone else to perform the work. Seek recommendations from friends, neighbors, co-workers and others who have had work performed on their homes.
  • Get three written estimates for the work, if possible, and compare bids. Check credentials and contact the Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau to learn about any complaints against the contractor. Before work beings, make sure you get a written contract detailing all the work to be performed, its costs and a projected completion date.
  • For car repairs, shop around and compare written estimates. On major jobs, get a second opinion. If the mechanic recommends replacing parts, ask for the old parts. You may receive credit on some parts if the mechanic wants to keep them.
  • Beware of charity scams that use recent storms to make their phony pleas for donations sound more plausible. If a caller refuses to answer your questions about the charity, offers to come to pick up a donation in person or calls you and asks for a credit card, bank account or Social Security number, it may be a scam. To report telemarketing fraud, call the Attorney General’s Office. To check up on a charity, call the Secretary of State’s office toll free at 1-888-830 4989.

Cooper also said Monday that his office is now authorized to investigate allegations of price gouging in the 18 counties and cities where states of emergencies have been declared.

Those counties/cities are: Bertie, Bladen, Cumberland, Greene, Halifax, Harnett, Hoke, Johnston, Lee, Onslow, Pender, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Wake and Wilson counties; and the cities of Dunn and Farmville.

Price gouging – or charging an unreasonably excessive amount in times of crisis – is against North Carolina law when a disaster, an emergency or an abnormal market disruption for critical goods and services is declared by the governor or local governments. The law also applies to all levels of the supply chain from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer.

To report price gouging, call the Consumer Protection Division at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM (toll-free within North Carolina) or by fill out a price gouging complaint form online.