State Officials Warn Residents To Be Wary Of Hurricane-Related Scams

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NEWARK – Gov. Chris Christie, Attorney General Paula T. Dow, and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs today warned consumers to watch for home repair scams and charity scams during the post-Hurricane Irene recovery period.

“It is an unfortunate fact that disasters attract their share of con artists and frauds, from fly-by-night home improvement contractors, to fake charities that do nothing but line their own pockets,” Christie said. “New Jersey consumers recovering from flood and wind damage should look at every sales pitch and charity solicitation with a critical eye. Disaster recovery is enough of an ordeal, without the added outrage of being scammed.”

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State officials noted that dishonest home improvement contractors have been known to prey on individuals seeking to repair their homes after severe flooding incidents. Offering low prices and speedy work, they may leave consumers with poor or half-finished work, and homes that remain unsafe.

Fraudulent charities also solicit donations in the wake of disasters. At least one such apparent fraud began after the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster that affected Japan. Misusing the name of a respected charitable organization, the alleged scammer sent out emails asking consumers to send donations of no less than $300, via Western Union to a location in the Philippines.

“Bad home improvement contractors can leave homeowners with costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Fake charities capitalize on compassion, to steal money that should go to worthy causes,” Dow said. “Just as we are investigating allegations of illegal price-gouging, we will investigate any and every complaint about con artists, should they attempt to capitalize on the hardships caused by Hurricane Irene. We urge consumers to take the first step of being careful and protecting themselves.”

Dow and Thomas R. Calcagni, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, urged consumers to call the Division of Consumer Affairs hotline, 1-800-242-5846, if they suspect fraud or to learn whether a contractor or purported charity is registered with the state.

“Con artists thrive in situations when stress levels are high, and consumers feel they must act quickly without taking a close look at who it is they’re doing business with,” Calcagni said. “Consumers should know there is always time to step back and learn about the person who is asking you for money – whether it’s a contractor you just met, or a charity calling on the phone. The Division of Consumer Affairs can help you determine whether the person, business, or organization is legitimate.”

Information on Home Repair Scams:

The Division’s information packet, “Tips For Flood Victims: How to Avoid Disaster-Related Scams,” available at www.NJConsumeraffairs.com/press/floodvictims.pdf , includes the following tips, among others:

  • Demand identification before you let anyone who claims to be from a utility company inspect your home.
  • Never give your credit card number or financial information to strangers over the phone or on the Internet.
  • Learn whether the contractor is properly registered with the Division of Consumer Affairs. Call the Division at 1-800-242-5846, or use the free “New Jersey Professional License Lookup” iPhone app, available by visiting www.NJConsumerAffairs.com.
  • Call the Division of Consumer Affairs to learn whether the contractor has been the subject of consumer complaints. You can also check the Division’s online listing of legal filings, at www.NJConsumerAffairs.com/ocp/filings.htm, to learn whetherthe iness has been the subject of legal action by the Division.
  • Demand a copy of the contractor’s liability insurance policy, and contact the insurer to make sure the policy is valid.
  • It is customary not to pay for the entire home improvement project in advance. Pay one-third beforehand, one-third halfway through, and one-third upon completion.

Information on Charity Scams:

The Division’s Consumer Brief on “Charitable Giving,” available at www.NJConsumerAffairs.com/brief/charity.pdf , offers the following tips:

  • Before donating to a charity, find out whether the charity is registered to solicit funds in New Jersey, or is exempt from registration (certain religious and educational organizations, and charities who raise less than $10,000 annually in contributions, are exempt).
  • Find out how, exactly the charity plans to use your money. Learn how much the charity spent during recent fiscal years on program costs, management costs, and fundraising. Learn about the charity’s stated mission.
  • The charity should readily provide all of this information to you. Verify the information by calling the Division of Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Hotline at 1-973-504-6215, or the Charities Registration page at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov.

Information on Auto Repair:

Consumers whose cars were damaged by the floods or fallen debris, should:

  • Check out auto repair shops by calling Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Service Center and asking about any past actions and/or consumer complaints.
  • Get a cost estimate in writing and be sure to remind the mechanic to get your authorization before making repairs not listed on the original repair order. Auto repair shops are required by law to do so.
  • If you believe the mechanic has recommended unnecessary work or you are dissatisfied with the estimate, get a second opinion.
  • If the work is guaranteed, get all the warranty information in writing on the repair order or bill.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website, www.NJConsumerAffairs.com, or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 1-973-504-6200.


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