Virginia Beach residents still recovering from Hurricane Matthew may yet face another disaster: scam artists.
Law enforcement and local officials urged residents on Wednesday to protect themselves from being ripped off in the storm’s aftermath. From the local to the state level, officials issued reminders of basic steps consumers should take to avoid being preyed upon by unscrupulous contractors, bogus charities or fraudulent relief officials.
“The main thing with these disasters is we don’t want people to become a victim twice,” said Richard S. Schweiker Jr., head of the consumer protection section in the office of the Virginia Attorney General.
Though Schweiker’s office has not yet seen an influx of post-Matthew complaints, dealings with contractors can be of particular concern, including those who help with water damage, mold remediation and tree removal.
Consumers can protect themselves by working with contractors they know, or people with ties to the community, not just someone who arrived from somewhere else, according to Schweiker.
Also, he offered a few standard tips: get referrals, check the contractor’s references, don’t pay in advance, withhold the final payment until the work is done and get at least one written estimate, but preferably several.
“It’s important to get these quotes in writing,” he said.
For prospective contractors who simply show up at your house, Virginia law offers another recourse. If the service they’re performing costs $25 or more, they have to give you notice that you have three days to cancel the transaction. After disasters such as a hurricane, you can waive your right to cancel, but the contractor has to get the cancellation in writing and you must sign it.
“It’s designed to protect people from high-pressure sales tactics at their door,” Schweiker said.
Another potential pitfall is fake disaster officials: people who claim to be with a government or other agency and demand access to your property.
These scammers might provide a false phone number, purporting to show they are from whichever entity they claim to represent. But homeowners should always contact the government or other agency and verify that it has sent people to your community, Schweiker said.
Then, of course, there are fraudulent charitable solicitations.
Even before Hurricane Matthew hit Florida last week, there were people soliciting for Florida disaster victims, according to Schweiker.
The key is to donate to disaster-relief charities you know and to people from your community, he said. As with contractors, don’t be pressured into donating. Check with the Virginia Office of Charitable and Regulatory Programs, to make sure the entity is registered with the state.
And follow some common sense advice.
“You really want to avoid cash donations,” Schweiker said. “Ask for information about how the money is going to be used.”
Separately on Wednesday, Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle and Virginia Beach Commissioner of the Revenue Philip Kellam also advised residents to use caution when they hire contractors to repair hurricane damage.
“Consumers are increasingly vulnerable after natural disasters, causing scammers to prey upon unsuspecting victims,” they said in a release.
Their list of 10 tips for picking a contractor is here.
To report a scam to the Attorney General’s Office, call the Consumer Complaint Hotline, 1-800-552-9963, or file an online complaint.