Severe storms and rampaging floodwaters have pummeled people in many parts of the country. Yet even as they start to cleanup, home and business owners may face a different—more insidious—threat from scammers known as "storm chasers" who offer debris removal, clean-up services, and home repair.

In the wake of the recent severe flooding in Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan warned against home repair con artists who quickly move to “work” an affected area. Elderly folks are particularly vulnerable.

A common scam occurs when someone poses as a contractor or service provider, requests payment in advance, and then doesn’t provide the services agreed upon. Price gouging is also a popular scam. Among the respondents to Consumer Reports Hurricane Sandy Impact Survey who hired contractors to help with post-storm repairs, 22 percent felt they had been exploited. The most common complaint was excessive prices charged for the repairs, followed by contractors who rushed through the job and did substandard work. 

Red Flags

To avoid unscrupulous contractors or outright scam artists, watch out for:

  • Unsolicited phone calls or visits. Be wary of people who appear at your door without an appointment and claim to offer disaster relief. Be especially wary of repair people who offer a bargain price, claiming that they’re "doing a job in the neighborhood and have leftover materials."

  • Fake officials. Scammers may try to impersonate government officials and claim they need to see your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number. This is a ploy to use your personal information for identity and credit card theft. Always ask to see their identification. Government officials must carry proper identification with their name and photograph.

  • Credentials that can’t be easily checked. A contractor whose address can’t be verified, who uses only a post office box, or who has only an answering service and no listing in the telephone book should set your fraud alarm buzzing. That also applies to contractors who aren’t affiliated with any recognized trade association, who tell you they "left at home" their state and local permits and licenses, or whose name on the license doesn’t match the name on the contractor's business card or truck. Check with your local Better Business Bureau to see whether they’re members or have had any complaints listed against them. Use only those repair people who can—and will—provide references for similar jobs in your area.

  • Price-busting promises. Don’t trust someone who promises a hefty discount but won't tell you the total cost of the job. The same advice applies for a contractor who promises a sizable drop in price in return for using your home as a “demo.”

  • Scare tactics. Scammers often use high-pressure sales tactics or threaten to rescind a special price if you don’t sign on the spot. Another typical scam is to try to scare you into a signing a contract by claiming that your house puts you in peril, saying, for example, “Your electrical wiring could start a fire if it isn’t replaced before the next rainstorm.”

Even if your home needs urgent repairs, take the time to find a reputable contractor and insist on a written contract. Remember that you have the right to cancel a contract within three days if you signed it in your home or at a seller’s temporary location, such as hotel or motel room, convention center, or restaurant. Protect yourself further by paying by check or credit card—never cash—and by never making full payment until all the work has been completed to your satisfaction.

These steps may delay your recovery from a disaster, but they will help protect you from being scammed.