Saturday, August 14, 2004

Hurricane Scam Warning

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner
Charles H. Bronson is warning Florida residents to beware of potential
scams in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, especially con artists posing
as contractors offering to make repairs.
In the past, the Department has received complaints following natural
disasters from consumers about people taking money for home repairs and
then disappearing. In some cases con artists go door to door telling
consumers they have leftover materials from other jobs and will make
repairs at a discounted price and take the money in advance. In other
cases, scam artists will ask for money up front to buy materials and
"Unfortunately, criminals will take advantage of a crisis to make money on
the backs of innocent storm victims," Bronson said. "I want citizens to
make sure they check out any contractors or other companies they may be
doing business with before signing any contract or giving them any money."
Some tips on how to spot a scam artist include:
* Usually solicits door to door and has "just finished a job down the
street." * Arrives in an unmarked vehicle. * May claim to have leftover
materials from another job and can do the work at a discount. * Has a
motel or post office box as an address but no regular street or business
address. * Asks the homeowner to obtain all necessary building permits.*
Here's how to protect yourself:
* Call the Department's Consumer Hotline at 1-800-HELP FLA to find out the
complaint history of a business. * Call the Construction Industry
Licensing Board at (904) 727-6530 to make sure the contractor is licensed.
* Contact your local county or city building inspector's office and ask if
they are familiar with the contractor. * Get more than one written
estimate, especially on large jobs. Make sure the estimates include a
complete description of all the work to be done, the costs and completion
dates. * Ask for and verify local references. * Don't automatically
accept the low bid, especially if it is considerably lower. The "low-ball"
contractor may intend to ask for more money after the job is under way and
may not be able to meet contract specifications and obligations.*
For more information about the legitimacy of a contractor or other
construction related questions, call the Construction Industry Licensing
Board. Consumers with questions about a business or who want to file a
complaint can also call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
hotline at 1-800-HELPFLA.
Bronson says bogus charities will also prey on the public, supposedly
seeking funds for storm victims but pocketing the money instead. He urges
people to call the Hotline to ensure a charitable solicitor is properly
registered with the state before donating any money. Callers can also
verify how a charity spends its money, how much goes to overhead and to
fundraising. If a consumer suspects a fraud, Bronson urges them to report
it to the same hotline number.
Bronson has also extended the hours of the price-gouging hotline in
anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Charley. The hotline will be
staffed on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. for consumers who
have complaints. The Division of Consumer Services has also set up a
special voicemail to accept complaints after hours so consumers will have
24-hour access to the price-gouging hotline.

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