Consumer alert: Beware of storm chasers, crooked contractors

CLEVELAND - In the wake of the damage and disruption caused by the "Superstorm Sandy,"  the Cleveland Better Business Bureau is reminding those who experience storm damage to take certain precautions when cleaning up and making repair decisions.

Natural disasters like tornados, hurricanes, floods, fires and earthquakes can bring out the best in people, as strangers reach out to help others in need. Unfortunately, crises also bring out people who choose to take advantage of the victims. BBB calls these "storm chasers," and expects to see plenty of them later this week as consumers and businesses assess the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Some of the most common "after disaster" scams involve auto, home and yard repairs or clean up. The BBB offers the following tips to homeowners who suffer auto and property damage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy:

Check with your insurance company about policy coverage and specific filing requirements. Save all receipts, including those for food, temporary lodging or other expenses that may be covered under your policy. Take pictures of damage to property and vehicles.

Stay calm. Although you may be anxious to get things back to normal, avoid letting your emotions get the better of you. Don't be pressured into making an immediate decision with a long-term impact. Be pro-active in selecting a company and not reactive to sales solicitations. Make temporary repairs if necessary.

Shop around. For major repairs, take time to get at least 3-4 estimates based on the same specifications and materials. Check references, verify licensing and registration, and read BBB Business Reviews at www.cleveland.bbb.org . There are many local home improvement and home repair contractors that are BBB Accredited Businesses and are committed to fair, honest and transparent business dealings with their customers.

Watch for Storm Chasers. Be wary of door-to-door workers who will canvass your neighborhood looking for storm damage. Do not sign any paperwork, even if the sales rep claims it is just for an estimate, until you are ready to sign a legally binding contract for repairs. Get the name, address, and contact information for the company and check their rating with BBB. Out-of-state contractors have been known to set up temporary offices in areas that suffer storm damage. Use local, established companies who will be available in the future if there are issues with the repairs. Do not give a contractor Power of Attorney over your affairs, or permit them to negotiate or settle your insurance claim. Do not be pressured into signing a contract immediately.

Get everything in writing. Require a written contract with anyone you hire. It should specify the work to be done, the materials to be used, and the price breakdown for both labor and materials. Any promises made verbally should be written into the contract, including warranties on materials or labor. Be sure their name, address, license number (if applicable) and phone number are included in the contract, along with a start and end date for the work. Once you have found a contractor, request proof of a current insurance certificate covering workman's compensation, property damage and personal liability.

Never pay in full in advance, and do not pay cash! While many companies may ask for a deposit, BBB suggests that no more than one-third of the job be paid upfront. Be sure the contract specifies the schedule for releasing payments to the contractor. Before making the final payment, ask the contractor to show proof that all subcontractors have been paid (if not, you could be liable).

Disaster victims should never feel forced to make a hasty decision or to choose an unknown contractor. For more tips you can trust and for a list of BBB Accredited Businesses in your area, visit www.cleveland.bbb.org or call 216-241-7678.

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