June 1st marked the opening day of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the office of the Attorney General wants you to be well prepared in the event a storm threatens Louisiana’s coastline. Caldwell warns that when disaster strikes, consumer related fraud can increase. “Hurricanes can cause much more than physical damage,” stated A.G. Buddy Caldwell. “Unfortunately, hurricane season is also a time in which unscrupulous con-artists can try to capitalize off of your misfortune. Even in emergency situations, it pays to be a smart consumer.” Scams related to price gouging, home repair and phony solicitations are likely to occur before and after a natural disaster. The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office wants you to be aware of the following disaster-related consumer scams:
When a state of emergency is declared, Louisiana laws against price gouging go into effect. Price gouging is when a seller prices merchandise much higher than is reasonable or fair. The price gouging statutes prohibit the raising of prices above the pre-emergency levels unless there is a national or regional market commodity shortage. This means that gasoline, petroleum products, hotels, motels, and retailers are prohibited from raising prices during this state of emergency unless they incur a spike in the price of doing business. In the event of a declared state of emergency, the Attorney General’s Office will be taking consumer complaints and will have investigators in the field on the lookout for price gougers. Price gouging laws carry both civil and criminal penalties.
If your home is damaged by a natural disaster, you will most likely be in the market for a reputable and qualified contractor. Even in such a situation as a disaster, it is still important to obtain more than one estimate for repairs and to check on the qualifications and credentials of anyone working on your home. You can contact local consumer agencies for reviews, and contact the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors at (800) 256-1392 to make sure the contractor is licensed, and to see if the contractor has any complaints or violations on record. Find out the contractor’s address and verify it. Get the name of the contractor’s insurer and bonding company. You will also want to ask for references of satisfied customers and contact those individuals to examine the work done. Where a down payment is required, it should not exceed 10% to 25% of the total price. Always get a guarantee in writing and keep a signed, legible copy of the contract in a safe place. Pay by check or money order, and keep all receipts. A model contract can be found by visiting www.agbuddycaldwell.com.
Scammers see hurricanes and other natural disasters as an opportunity to use phony solicitations in order to take advantage of both the disaster victims and people who wish to make charitable donations to help out these victims. Scammers take advantage of those people already victimized by posing as government agency employees or insurance adjusters. In the process of interviewing the victims, they request personal identifying information, such as Social Security numbers and bank information in order to steal their identity. If you are a disaster victim, you must confirm the identity of anyone who contacts you purporting to be from a governmental agency or insurance company. Ask for details in writing and be wary when the term “government approved” is used. Do not give out any information until you have checked them out by contacting the actual agency or insurance company that they claim to represent.
The scammers will also attempt to exploit the generosity of Louisiana citizens wishing to donate to the victims of natural disasters through phony charities. Use caution before giving credit card numbers over the phone or online. If you’re not sure whether a charity is legitimate, check up on charities by contacting the Attorney General’s Charitable Registration section and the Better Business Bureau before you donate. Be skeptical of unsolicited email requests for donations, even if they appear to be from a legitimate charity. Many charities including the Red Cross will never ask you for donations through e-mail; instead go to the actual website in your browser to make a donation. Never give your personal information in an e-mail. Make your check payable to the organization, never to an individual. Choose established charitable organizations that have a history of assisting in disasters.
To report price gouging, contractor fraud, or other consumer related scams, contact the attorney general’s consumer protection hotline at (800) 351-4889.