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Eileen AJ Connelly

If Irene damaged your property, don’t let a shady contractor ruin your finances

By Eileen AJ Connelly
September 1, 2011

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Homeowners who found themselves in the sights of Irene may soon be targeted by scammers looking to profit from their pain. The National Consumer Law Center says complaints about contractor fraud to the Louisiana attorney general’s office leaped to 6,000 in the two years after Hurricane Katrina, from about 150 a year prior to the 2005 storm.

One common scheme is to ask for an upfront payment, but never show up to do the work. Louisiana State University found that was the case for 61 percent of respondents who were victims of contractor fraud in the three years after Katrina.

Another big concern is contractors who use poor-quality materials and cut corners.

And the scams don’t come cheap: 15 percent of respondents in the LSU survey said they lost between $10,000 and $30,000.

The most common problems come when homeowners hire unlicensed contractors who hang signs advertising low-cost work or head to an affected area after a disaster. Here are some tips:

■Be suspicious of any contractor who tries to rush you, especially on nonemergency or temporary repairs.

■Send away quickly any contractor who claims to be backed by the government.

■Ask to see the primary contractor’s driver’s license and write down the number and the license plate number of his or her vehicle. Check the contractor’s proof of liability and worker compensation insurance. Make sure anyone you hire is licensed and bonded, or you could be liable if the contractor has an accident on the job.

■Never let a contractor discourage you from contacting your insurance company.

■Beware of contractors who encourage you to spend a large sum on temporary repairs. Payments for such repairs are covered as part of the total insurance settlement. If you run up a big expense for temporary fixes, you may not have enough money for the necessary permanent repairs.

■Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations or get a list of contractors from your insurance agent. Check out candidates on online forums, and with the Better Business Bureau and state attorney general’s office. Never give anyone a deposit until after you have researched their background.

■Don’t pay upfront. The down payment should be just a portion of the total bill. And don’t pay anything until you have a written contract. Never sign a contract with blank spaces.

■Beware of gouging. Report exorbitant price hikes to local authorities. Get all terms in writing; that includes prices for labor and materials, a precise description of the work, guarantees, payment schedules, and estimated start and finish dates.

■Don’t pay with cash and don’t sign over an insurance settlement check to the contractor. Using checks or credit cards creates a record.

■Never sign a completion certificate until you are sure the work satisfies building codes.

Eileen AJ Connelly writes for the Associated Press.