ATLANTA - In the aftermath of Alabama's devastating tornadoes, Alabama Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are advising those who have sustained damage to be aware of potential scams and fraud.
As residents are beginning the recovery process, unscrupulous people may pretend to be contractors and inspectors and ask for a fee. FEMA employees do not solicit or accept money. Also, some scammers are attempting to purchase goods with fake FEMA vouchers at and other stores. FEMA does not offer financial assistance in the form of vouchers.
Those who suspect anyone of committing fraudulent activities should call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline toll-free at 866-720-5721. Complaints may also be made to local law enforcement agencies and through the state's Office of Consumer Affairs at: 800-392-5658.
To safeguard against disaster-related fraud, officials suggest the following precautions:
Ask for ID. If someone represents him or herself as a federal employee, such as an inspector, but doesn't produce identification, resident should ask to see the identification.
A FEMA or U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) shirt or jacket is not absolute proof of someone's affiliation with the government.
Federal employees carry official, laminated photo identification. Applicants may receive a visit from more than one inspector or verifier.
Safeguard personal information. Do not give personal information such as Social Security and bank account numbers to individuals claiming to be affiliated with the federal government. FEMA inspectors never require this information.
FEMA will request an applicant's Social Security or bank account number during the first phone call when the applicant calls FEMA's registration line. On any follow-up calls, a representative may ask for the last four digits of your Social Security number. If you didn't initiate the phone call, do not provide sensitive personal information-it could be a scam.
Beware of people going door-to-door. People going door-to-door to damaged homes or phoning disaster survivors and claiming to be building contractors could be frauds. If visitors or callers solicit personal information such as Social Security or bank account numbers, they may not be legitimate.
Federal workers do not solicit or accept money. Remember, FEMA and SBA staff members never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications. If in doubt, do not give out information, then report people claiming to be government workers to local police.
FEMA inspectors only verify damage. FEMA inspectors do not hire or endorse specific contractors to repair damage.
TIPS FOR HIRING CONTRACTORS
Use reliable, licensed contractors-- Ask to see a license. For more information about a contractor, or if you are unsure about the validity of a license, check with the Better Business Bureau and your local or state contractor licensing officials.
Get a written estimate, and be sure to read the fine print-- Always get estimates from several reputable contractors before making a decision. Always hire a local contractor if at all possible.
Ask for a written contract--A complete contract should clearly state all the work to be performed, all associated costs, the payment schedule and obligate the contractor to pay for all materials ordered for the job.
Permits--Make sure the contract clearly states who will obtain the necessary permits. Have a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved. Keep a copy of the signed contract.
Proof of insurance-- Make sure your contractor carries general liability insurance, workers' compensation and is bonded. A homeowner could be liable for accidents on the property when working with an uninsured contractor.
Pay by check - Avoid paying in advance and making payments in cash if at all possible. A reasonable down payment is 30 percent of the total cost of the project. Remember there is a federal law which generally allows a buyer to cancel a contract within three-days for unsolicited door-to-door sales of more than $25, but some exceptions may apply for emergency housing repairs if the buyer initiated the contact with the contractor. For more information, visit http://www.ago.state.al.us/consumer_template.cfm?Subject=FAQ.
For additional information and tips on hiring contractors, visit the Alabama Attorney General's Office of Consumer Affairs at http://www.ago.state.al.us/faq/consumer_contractor.pdf