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Storm Damage? 6 Ways to Avoid Contractor Scams

The derecho storm that hit Ohio and the mid-Atlantic states Friday night brought winds in excess of 70 mph, tore down power lines and trees, and left millions without power in the sweltering heat. Now, millions of American families will be faced with the task of filing insurance claims to get their homes, cars and property repaired. With approximately three million people affected in states including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky, it could take months for insurance companies to review cases and help everyone in need.

Unfortunately, tragedies that involve property damage often bring out unscrupulous contractors looking to prey on individuals in need of home repair. These contractors often go door-to-door in heavily damaged areas and offer to fix roofs, windows, and other parts of a home in exchange for hefty down-payments or fees that are substantially larger than necessary. In some cases, they may never return to do the work they were paid to do. If you’re among some of the millions affected, experts suggest calling your insurance company first to file a claim, and remaining cautious when hiring a contractor to help with repairs. Here are six signs that a contractor might not be looking out for your best interest:

1.) They shouldn’t offer to negotiate with your insurance company

“There are contractors that have been going door-to-door telling people, ‘If you sign up with me and pay me upfront, I’ll negotiate on your behalf with the insurance company,’” says Kathleen Weinheimer, spokesperson for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New York. “You don’t want to relinquish that right to someone else.”

These non-reputable contractors will claim that if you pay them for their work, they’ll will make sure your insurance company refunds your money. In reality, they have no way of knowing how much your insurance company is going to reimburse, and no “negotiating” can change that–only a claims adjuster appointed by your insurance company can make those calls.

2.) They aren’t on your insurance company’s list of “recommended contractors”

“The best place to find a reputable contractor is through your insurance company,” says Weinheimer. “They’ll have a list of people who are reputable, affordable, and it’s a thousand times better to hire someone that’s been recommended rather than someone you don’t know anything about.”

Call your insurance company before hiring anyone; your insurer can provide a quick list of approved contractors, she says.

3) They warn you that your insurance company “doesn’t care” or “isn’t coming”

With so many families trying to repair damaged homes, it may take weeks for your insurance company to send an adjuster to your house to assess damage. However, unscrupulous contractors will take advantage of people’s emotions during this tough time and plant unnecessary fears that the insurance company is “never” coming, Weinheimer says.

Scamming contractors are hoping that downed power and phone lines will mean people won’t have time to call their insurance company and verify that a claims adjuster is coming or discuss their damages.

“Make sure you have your phone number for your insurance company in a secure place,” she says. “If you’re in a panic and you haven’t talked to your insurance agent, the first guy who shows up at your doorstep can seem like savior, but you have to be careful. You’re in an emotional place, but that doesn’t mean you have to make snap decisions.”

4.) They will try to convince you to hire them for the entire repair job, not just spot repairs

Most all homeowners’ policies will reimburse people for a “reasonable repair,” which is a temporary repair that ensures no further damage will come to the home, according to Weinheimer.

For example, if your roof is leaking and you need to purchase a tarp or pay someone to put plywood over the hole, the insurance company will reimburse you for those expenses. These provisional repairs are deemed as necessary, but permanent repairs are not, and any expenses spent on a permanent repair might not be reimbursed.

“You can absolutely pay someone to put some temporary plywood up there, but don’t be pressured into agreeing to give a contractor the entire job up front,” she says. “Your policy will pay for reasonable repairs, but it’s a huge red flag if the contractors insist on being paid for the entire job.”

5.) They refuse to provide identification or license numbers

“Ask for their driver’s license number, take down their license plate number, as well as any licenses or insurance they may have,” says Weinheimer. “If they don’t have these items or refuse to give you these items, then they’re not who they say they are.”

Bob Rusbuldt, president and CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America advises homeowners ask: Are you bonded? Do you have insurance? Can I call your references? Do you have a website? “It may seem like a nuisance, but taking 15 minutes to check someone out is very important.”

6) They’ll be eager to point out damages that aren’t covered

“They’ll say things like, ‘I see that your sidewalk is cracked,’ or ‘I think you have hail damage,’ but they’re just looking for work so they can get paid,” says Rusbuldt “They have no way of knowing what your homeowners’ policy covers.”

In many cases, illegitimate contractors will assure you that what they’re doing is covered, but everyone’s homeowner policy is different. Some homeowners are covered for floods, hail, roof damage, lightning, wind, while others are not.

“There’s no way to know for certain unless you check your policy and double-check with your insurance agent,” says Rusbuldt.

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