winter storm

Consumer Experts Warn of Contractor Schemes During Winter Storm Clean Up

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The price tag on the damage from last month's winter storms continues to get even more expensive.

AccuWeather's estimate of the multi-state winter storm's damage is now up to about $155 billion. Texas accounts for a majority of that, with $130 billion in damages, the costliest weather disaster in the state's history. It tops 2017's Hurricane Harvey.

That number could continue to grow in the coming days.

As many North Texans continue cleaning up damage from broken pipes and other issues after the winter storm, some contractors with ill-intent are out to make a quick buck. For context, hundreds of complaints and lawsuits came out of Hurricane Harvey.

With so much damage reported across North Texas, there’s concern for some to take advantage of a bad situation.

“When professional contractors can’t quickly meet the demand for their services, that’s when scammers fill that void,” said Jim Elliott, assistant director for the Southwest Region of the Federal Trade Commission. “One thing that we see constantly is that when there’s a disaster in a part of the country, scam artists will move to that disaster. That’s why it’s important to prevent things now and look for the red flags.”

The Better Business Bureau Serving North Central Texas said contractor schemes can prey on people's confusion and rush to get things cleaned up. The worry is that they have traveled to North Texas and are already on the move.

“Once the dust settles, insurance claims have been paid, and you realize that the contractor is not coming back. Sometimes you’ll pay them and everybody’s busy, I know that everybody know that everyone’s behind – but it may be a month before you realize that contractor is not coming back,” warned Monica Horton with the BBB.

While it's still too early to know exactly how many questionable contractors have moved into the area, the BBB said they're already getting some complaints.

“A lot of contractors have a lot of work. Especially the good trustworthy contractors, they are backed up and behind so we want consumers to be patient. Don’t get in a hurry because sometimes that opens it up to being a victim and getting scammed,” Horton said.

Horton clarified not every contractor following the storm is necessarily out to take advantage of people. But there are some common warning signs of those with bad intentions.

"Do not make any purchasing decisions when someone is standing on your doorstep. You can take their information but do your research and check out the company,” Horton said. "A lot of times they will have some scenario or excuse where they've just completed a job around the corner and they may have some leftover supplies. But if they are pressuring you and if you don't contract with them right then and there, that should be a red flag for you to step away from that situation.”

The FTC said it’s important for consumers to do their research, check for permits and proper documentation, and never pay for anything upfront. Some smaller contractors might require a down payment to cover supplies and that’s acceptable, but never let the payments get ahead of the work that's being done.

Be skeptical of anyone promising immediate clean-up and debris removal. And never pay by wire transfer, gift card, or in cash.

The FTC works with the attorney general's office to help investigate reported schemes, which can be tricky with traveling contractors.

"Sometimes we take certain measures. Our investigators are really good about trying to track down people and so they'll find and use all the tools in the trade for us to track people down. And we've typically been pretty successful,” Elliott said.

So if you think you've been victimized by a questionable contractor during storm repairs, report it to the Texas Attorney General’s Office by clicking here.

You also need to report it to the Federal Trade Commission by visiting ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

You can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau by clicking here.

All three agencies will work to share the complaint with law enforcement.

Utility imposter scams and FEMA scams are also in full swing. Callers may threaten to shut your power off, claiming that you are delinquent on payments due to the storm. Click here for more information.

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