A different kind of storm chaser

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

by Neil Clark

If you were connected to any form of communication media, you were served ample warnings before and during Hurricane Irene — stock up on bottled water, batteries, flashlights, propane; fill your tub for non-potable uses; watch out for power lines in fallen tree debris; don’t tread through mucky water; don’t drive in deep water; never use a generator inside a residence or garage; and the list goes on.

Then when all of the damages are assessed and the media furor dies down, the cleanup and recovery begins. And often, the vultures begin circling — scam artists — a different kind of storm chaser.

Most reputable local contractors get overrun with calls and many out-of-town contractors arrive on the scene to pick up work. Assuredly many of these people will perform cleanup and construction tasks for a reasonable fee without a problem.

However, there are often times a few bad apples looking to take advantage of folk in bad situations. You want to take whatever steps practical to protect yourself from fraud, substandard work, or legal liability.

Here are a few tips to avoid being taken:

n Most importantly never pay cash up front until the work is performed. Payment by check or credit card after the work is performed provides even more security that the contractor is legitimate.

n Never give your Social Security, banking or credit card numbers, FEMA registration numbers, or other personal information that could be used in identity theft situations

n A written contract is preferable to at least have some recourse should problems arise. This needn’t be super complicated, but at least specifies the work to be done, timeframe and payment details, and lets you gather contact information in case follow-up is needed.

n Ask for proof of insurance. Written documentation of disability and workers compensation insurance helps protect you from liability if their workers are injured on your property.

n If possible, check with the Better Business Bureau or other customers

n If you have a big project, making temporary repairs until reputable local contractors are available may be advisable.

You should also be aware that the Virginia Post-Disaster Anti-Price Gouging Act goes in force when a state of emergency is declared and typically remains in effect for 30 days. This act prevents inordinate price increases on fuel and necessities within the affected region.

Necessities include items such as water, ice, consumer food items or supplies, property or services for emergency cleanup, emergency supplies, communication supplies and services, medical supplies and services, home heating fuel, building materials and services, tree removal supplies and services, freight, storage services, housing, lodging, transportation and motor fuels. If you suspect price gouging, call the Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 552-9963.

Randy Forbes’ office maintains and updates a very useful Frequently Asked Questions document at http://forbes.house.gov/constituentservices/hurricaneirenefaq.htm. Likewise many other agencies including Virginia Cooperative Extension have information and publications regarding food, debris removal and consumer safety.

Contact us at 653-2572 if you desire any of this information.

We are thankful that things are not as bad as they could have been, however it is wise to take advantage of this practice session to be prepared should you have to deal with a more severe situation in the future.

NEIL CLARK is a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for Southampton County and Southeast District forestry. He can be reached at southeast@vt.edu.