Asbury Park Press

Beware Of Scams By Phony Contractors

Asbury Park Press — Monday, November 12, 2012

By Jordan Culver

Darlene Franklin wants a solution to a problem thousands of New Jersey residents are faced with in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

On one hand, she wants her house fixed quickly. She said the entire first floor of her home in Highlands is "completely destroyed." However, there's a problem: A quick fix could mean falling prey to price-gouging contractors. Or even worse, she could become a victim of contractor fraud.

Which means for now, she has to wait and see as insurance companies assess the damage — while she eats clam chowder at a local church.

"That's a very big fear of mine," she said. "I'm afraid when we go back to our homes and finally start repairing damage, somebody is going to come and charge triple the rate thinking we're getting $1 million from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). That's just not going to happen."

Franklin's fear is legitimate. The state Division of Consumer Affairs has already fielded almost 1,200 complaints about price gouging by gas stations, hardware and convenience stores and hotels. That, coupled with the threat of fly-by-night and impostor contractors, has the entire agency on high alert, acting Division Director Eric Kenefsky said.

Anyone is vulnerable after a storm, New Jersey Citizen Action Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye said. She said most contractors looking to scam someone will offer financing options on repairs that can be handled quickly.

"It's really buyer beware," Salowe-Kaye said. "Consumers need to be careful, and they need to check with their insurers. There's going to be so much rebuilding that needs to be done, people need to make sure they aren't getting repairs from unscrupulous characters."

Assessing damage

Annmaire Howley, director of consumer affairs for Monmouth County, said investigators with her office started assessing damage as soon as Sandy passed. Wednesday's nor'easter, which brought heavy snow and left an additional 100,000 residents without power, concerned Howley, but she said her office will continue inspections as usual.

The inspections help make sure residents are aware of their options and are less likely to fall prey to contractor fraud, she said. Investigators also take close looks at anyone claiming to be a contractor. Anyone can perform a quick test by checking a contractor's truck — licensed contractors will usually display their state home-improvement number on their trucks.

Other methods include getting a signed contract for any work that needs to be done, making checks payable to business and never paying for work up front. Residents should always make sure the contractor is registered with the state by checking them through the Better Business Bureau and through the Department of Community Affairs.

"We've even gone door-to-door in certain problem areas," Howley said. "We've heard reports of out-of-state contractors and tree-removal people. In areas where a resident's home was not destroyed, but it was important for the damage to be remedied, we felt it was important to educate people."

Most homeowners want to replace wall board and wet insulation in their homes before mold sets in, said Stephen Scarturro, director of Consumer Affairs in Ocean County. The need to get the repairs done quickly is how many homeowners fall into traps, he said.

He said the Ocean County office hasn't received too many complaints yet. Like Monmouth County's division, inspectors are making sure residents are aware of their options.

"If we see any construction vehicles without home improvement numbers displayed, then we stop and look at their credentials," Scarturro said. "We stop and look at everyone and make sure they're all legitimate and not trying to take advantage. We've also had advertisements on the radio since the storm."

This, while helpful, does little to comfort residents like Franklin. She's still cold following the nor'easter, the first floor of her house is still uninhabitable, and she's still waiting for answers.

At the very least, she'd like to see power return.

"I want to take down the walls," she said. "I know the house is going to start to mold. I want to take up the carpeting on the stairs. I had 4 feet of water inside my house. I'm going to need everything redone. I don't even have a hot-water heater anymore."

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