ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Central Texans are working on repairing damage to homes and businesses after the devastating winter freeze from several weeks ago.
“We have had thousands of customers in Texas that have been impacted by the damage,” said Steve Wilson, Senior Underwriting Manager at Hippo, a homeowners insurance company. “The top three have been pipe bursts which have caused a lot of leaking… we know that our lines are often run through the attic. So, a lot of ceiling and wall damage to drywall insulation.”
Wilson’s own neighborhood was covered with ice and snow. He explained that customers have also had roofs collapse and damage to homes from fallen trees across the state.
“You’ve already suffered one catastrophe, and we know it can be a challenge when you’re trying to find a contractor. So, we try to just make sure that we inform people,” said Wilson.
What to do
As repairs continue and there’s a shortage of people to get the work done, Wilson said they’re warning customers to be wary of getting ripped off by following these tips:
- Talk to your home insurance company. If you are insured, your insurance company is your most reliable source for repair assistance.
- If contractors knock, be wary. Seek a list of reliable contractors from your insurance company or search online for highly rated local services.
- Ask to see a license and proof of insurance. If the contractor is not insured, you could be liable for accidents on your property. If you are hiring the kind of worker who must be licensed by the state (such as an electrician), contact the licensing agency to check the person’s credentials and inquire about complaints.
- Get more than one estimate. Don’t be pushed into signing a contract or paying upfront. Take your time, do your research, no matter how urgent your repairs may be.
Be ready to walk away
“We have to maintain that guard as a consumer – as a homeowner to say, ‘Hey, if you can’t answer these basic questions of why do you want cash upfront? Why won’t you put this in writing? Why won’t you give me references? Why won’t you show me your permits and insurance?’ We need to be able to walk away,” said Bruce Dorris, President and CEO of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).
The Austin-based organization provides businesses and government agencies in the anti-fraud field with training, education and the credentials to investigate, detect and prevent fraud cases across the country.
“If someone shows up – out of the blue – out of nowhere and offering you these services that you have not been able to get as a consumer for several weeks and… it appears too good to be true, then it probably is,” explained Dorris.
He said look for these red flags:
- Cash only deals. Don’t pay in cash. You want to have a paper trail. Don’t wire money and don’t make the final payment until the work is completed.
- Not local. Work with someone who has an established history working in your area. If they’re from out of state helping out, check to see if they are with a charitable organization or have a relationship with a business and then verify.
- No references. Get references from past customers. Check for reviews and ratings online.
- Watch what you post online. Social media is a great tool for recommendations but can also invite people to your neighborhood looking for an opportunity. Be careful of what you post and alert neighbors of anything suspicious.
“You’ve got the limited supply of those in those particular trades and then the desperation that the need of consumers who just want to live in their homes and not have to have buckets out every day,” said Dorris. “They’re taking advantage of that and that’s why we have to maintain that skepticism.”
If you’re a victim
Dorris and Wilson also said that until you are certain you are working with a reputable company you should guard your personal financial information.
Federal recovery officials including FEMA explained that it’s important to take a picture of your contractor, their vehicle and license plate along with their business card and driver’s license.
The Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that tracks fraud cases, said last year it received nearly 500,000 reports where someone pretended to be from a government agency or business.
The agency said people reported losing $1.2 billion in COVID-19 and stimulus related reports.
Consumers are encouraged to report concerns to their local law enforcement agency, the Texas Office of the Attorney General by calling 800-621-0508 or call the free FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720- 5721 available 24-hours a day.