The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 6, 2011

Allison Riddle, columnist: Watch for fraud when repairing tornado damage

By Allison Riddle
Special to The Globe

JOPLIN, Mo. — Survivors are being cautioned about scam artists coming out of the woodwork after the May 22 tornado. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it’s important to be vigilant in protecting your property and money by looking out for those that want to take advantage of a dire situation.

If someone comes to you claiming to be FEMA or SBA (Small Business Administration) personnel, make sure they are wearing a laminated photo identification card, which they are required to have on them at all times. If you don’t see an ID card, they’re not who they say they are.

FEMA warns residents of some fraudulent schemes that could be present in Joplin during this difficult time:

• Con artists going door to door soliciting personal information from survivors, including Social Security and bank account numbers. Some have even asked about residents’ insurance checks and how much they received, or offered to act as a “liaison” between an individual and their insurance company.

• Scammers telling homeowners they need to pay money to be put on a list to get their home repaired.

• People pretending to be from the SBA and offering to fill out Disaster loan applications for a fee.

Keep in mind that FEMA or SBA representatives are not allowed to accept money and all applicants will be registered without charge. There is also never a charge to be placed on a “FEMA List” or to have SBA reps assist applicants with their disaster loan applications. Experts from both agencies are located at the Disaster Resource Center at Seventh Street and Illinois Avenue (old Sears Plaza) to assist all storm survivors with their application for disaster aid.

When checking on contractor’s for home repairs, FEMA says there are a lot of things to remember. For example:

• Check on the contractor’s licensing status with local or state licensing agencies, the Better Business Bureau, homebuilder’s association or trade council to see if the firm has any unanswered complaints against it.

• Be suspicious of anyone who offers to increase the amount of your disaster damage assessment.

• Ask for proof of insurance, including both disability and worker’s compensation insurance.

• Ask for a written estimate and check to make sure it includes all work you need to have done, including taxes and fees.

• Once you choose a contractor, ask for a written contract that includes cost, a timeline, a payment schedule, and who is responsible for getting permits.

• Never let the contractor handle anything involving your insurance coverage, and never turn over your insurance check to him/her.

• Do not give anyone an advance cash payment. Pay by check or better yet, a credit card in order to keep a record of your payment. If you use a credit card, you will have a better chance of reversing fraudulent charges. (Legitimate contractors normally do not require more than one-third of the total charges as a down payment).

Last but not least, go with your gut. If you feel uneasy about someone, or the little voice in your head is telling you something is too good to be true, it probably is. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us at 417-781-7562.

Allison Riddle is the community services director for Area Agency on Aging, Region 10.