PASADENA, Texas — Law enforcement officials are asking residents to be aware of scammers in the wake of Tuesday's tornadoes.
They’re raising the issue as contractors begin to saturate disaster areas to help people rebuild. Some of them are without good intentions.
Several state government agencies gave residents tips to avoid potential scams as criminals look to take advantage of the most vulnerable in the community.
“If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Pasadena Police Chief Josh Bruegger said.
Some contractors riding around southeast Houston neighborhoods may be legitimate while others could have a different plan.
“The thing that is at top of mind is the predators that are in our community -- that prey on the most vulnerable, the most elderly, to do nothing but steal their money,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.
Garcia’s district was hit by tornadoes. Garcia, a former Harris County sheriff, said that if they’re legitimate, they won’t mind being transparent.
“Make sure you got the right documentation, the right identification. Make sure you do some research with the Better Business Bureau but do not pay for any damage in advance,” Garcia said.
Scammers will often try to get customers to pay with cash, credit cards or cashier checks upfront.
“All these things should be red flags,” Garcia said.
Business owners and residents should check with their city or county to see if the contractor is registered. Also, don’t share any personal information -- to avoid identity theft.
Residents should shop around to get more than one estimate for the work that needs to be done. People are also advised to pay close attention to what documentation they sign. Also, skip the offers to waive your insurance deductible because it’s illegal.
Get more than one bid
Getting at least three bids will help you decide which offers may be too high or too good to be true. Your insurance adjuster can give you an idea of what the repair should cost. Bids should be on the company’s letterhead with a phone number and an address. Keep a copy of all agreements and warranty terms.
Watch what you sign
Read every document carefully before you sign. Scammers will try to get you to sign a contract by calling it an estimate or a release just to go on your roof. And don’t sign a contract with blank spaces. Shady contractors will fill in the spaces later with higher costs or work that’s different from what you wanted.
"The thing that is at top of mind is the predators that are in our community that prey on the most vulnerable, the most elderly, to do nothing but steal their money," Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.
Beware of misleading language
Don’t sign contracts that say, “Homeowner agrees to the listed repairs for the value of insurance proceeds.” If you do, the contractor gets every penny from your insurance payment. Make sure the contract lists the materials they’ll use. Keep an eye out for defective or low-quality materials while work progresses.
Don't pay upfront
Be wary if a contractor asks for a large or full down payment. After a disaster, it’s against the law for out-of-town contractors to ask for a down payment before they start.
"Make sure you got the right documentation, the right identification, make sure you do some research with the Better Business Bureau but do not pay for any damage in advance," Garcia advised.
Skip offers to waive your deductible
It’s against the law for a contractor to offer to waive an insurance deductible or work the deductible amount into a bid. If this happens, find a new contractor. You can also report it to the Texas Attorney General at 800-621-0508.
Resources and key contacts
- 2-1-1 Texas: Call 2-1-1 for help with food, housing, health care, and more.
- Helping storm victims: A toolkit for community groups
- Preventing fraud after a storm: a toolkit for city and county officials
- Office of Public Insurance Counsel: Check the website for tips, call 1-877-611-6742, or email email@example.com.
- National Flood Insurance Program: How to file a claim
- Texas FAIR Plan Association: 877-786-5665 (English) or 866-443-6738 (Español).
- DisasterAssistance.gov: Apply for FEMA help, check the status of your application, or find a hotel that accepts FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance.
- Texas Department of Motor Vehicles: Water-damaged vehicles title check
- Texas Windstorm Insurance Association: 877-281-1431 (English) or 866-443-3144 (Español).
- Windstorm Inspection Program
More helpful numbers
Source: Texas Department of Insurance