U.S. Virgin Islands residents affected by recent back-to-back Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria have already absorbed a crippling blow in the form of damaged homes, lost roofs and possessions, and significant interruptions in business and employment. As if this isn’t enough, Virgin Islanders now face another growing concern: repair scams.
Insurance and repair scams are common and inevitably follow disasters. Those perpetuating the fraud, also known as “storm chasers”, seek to exploit the victims of disasters and their need to rebuild and recover. Storm victims need to protect themselves and be vigilant, and certain preventative measures should be employed to avoid becoming further victimized by disaster repair fraud.
The following are some precautions to consider:
- File a claim with your insurance company as soon as possible. Many insurers have a time certain to file claims, such as 60 days after the loss.
- Document the destruction. Take detailed, interior and exterior photos of your property and damaged areas.
- If someone approaches you and claims to be an insurance adjuster, do not invite them into your home or place of business. Ask for company ID. If they don’t have ID, ask them to leave immediately. If they do have ID, call your insurance company to verify.
When hiring a contractor:
- Hire only licensed, reputable companies or individuals and beware of strangers who call or knock on your door for personal information.
- Get their full name, address and phone number(s).
- Check the name of the contractor or the company with the DLCA.
- Ask for evidence of a business license or other qualifications.
- Ask for references and contact these past customers to determine their experience with the contractor.
- Check with the Virgin Islands Department of Licensing & Consumer Affairs and courthouse for any complaints, criminal history and civil cases against the contractor.
- Get several estimates (at least 3) before making a selection.
- Get a written contract and don’t sign anything you don’t understand.
- Specify the work to be done, the time line for completion and the price.
- Do not pay for the entire job, or a substantial portion thereof, upfront. Pay as little as possible upfront, insist on paying when the job is complete, and try not to pay in cash; instead, pay by credit card or check to create a paper trail. Do not make any final payments until you have inspected and are satisfied with the repairs.
- Continue paying your mortgage unless you have worked out a deferment or forbearance with your lender first.
- Keep all receipts for any materials or repairs personally incurred.
- Be wary of “robocalls” asking for insurance premium payments. These robocalls tell victims that if they don’t immediately pay, usually over the phone by credit card, their insurance premiums will be canceled. Always contact your insurance agent directly.
It is important to remember that government assistance is available. The National Center for Disaster Fraud, formed in response to Hurricane Katrina, has a hotline you can call if you suspect fraud at 866.720.5721, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org The Center serves as a national clearinghouse and refers cases to the proper law enforcement agency anywhere in the country. Victims of fraud are also encouraged to report incidents.
J. Nash Davis is an associate Attorney with BoltNagi, an established and respected law firm assisting a wide range o