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For Immediate Release:  
For Further Information Contact:
April 7, 2005

Office of The Attorney General
- Peter C. Harvey, Attorney General
Division of Consumer Affairs
- Jeffrey Burstein, Acting Director

 

Genene Morris, Jeff Lamm
973-504-6327

 

Attorney General and Consumer Affairs Offer Tips to Flood Victims on How to Avoid Disaster-Related Scams

NEWARK — As people in Bergen, Passaic, Morris and Mercer counties return to their flood-damaged homes, Attorney General Peter C. Harvey and New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Jeffrey Burstein are urging citizens to be on the look-out for would-be con artists who seek to carry out disaster-related scams.

“During times of disaster, most of us do what we can to see our neighbors through the tough times,” Attorney General Harvey said. “However, there are those among us who see times of disaster as opportunities to carry out fraudulent fund-raising schemes, home repair scams, auto repair frauds and to price gouge.”

“This has been a hard week for thousands of New Jersey residents who were forced to evacuate their homes when the banks of the Delaware and Passaic rivers overflowed, flooding their homes,” Acting Governor Richard J. Codey said. “The last thing we want flood victims to have to deal with is scam artists whose greed clouds their sense of decency.”

“While Consumer Affairs has not received any complaints concerning flood-related scams at this time, we are putting the unscrupulous on notice that we will aggressively investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute anyone who attempts to profit from other people’s tragedies,” Acting Director Burstein said.

Here are some important tips consumers should heed to avoid becoming the victims of disaster-related scams:

Home Repair Tips:

This time of year, most homeowners are already thinking about sprucing up around the house. But for flood victims, their needs go far beyond cosmetic repairs. They’ll be looking at thousands of dollars worth of necessary repairs to make their homes habitable again. Residents can protect themselves from dishonest home repair contractors by heeding the following tips:

  • Shop around and obtain at least three written estimates.
  • Call Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Service Center at 800-242-5846 (if calling from within the State of New Jersey) or 973-504-6200 to find out if the contractor you’re thinking about hiring has been the subject of consumer complaints and/or legal action by the State.
  • Ask your contractor about his or her professional affiliations and confirm the information with the organizations.
  • Make sure all warranties and guarantees are in writing.
  • Do not pay for the entire job up front. Payments of one-third in advance, one-third halfway through the job and one-third upon completion is the customary arrangement.
  • Look for the red flags. Be wary if the contractor tells you that he or she needs a large payment before the home repair work can begin; insists you pay cash; tells you a written contract is not necessary – a verbal agreement is enough; or has a P.O. Box as opposed to a street address; does not have a business card or, in the case of where he or she is offering plumbing or electrical contracting services, cannot produce a state license number.
  • If the contractor is offering to do electrical contracting services, call the State Board of Electrical Contractors at 973-504-6410 to ensure that he or she is licensed with that board to do such work.
  • If the contractor is offering plumbing services, call the State Board of Master Plumbers at 973-504-6420 to ensure that he or she is properly licensed to do such work.

Also:

  • Avoid transient home repair contractors. If you hire a contractor, make sure you get names, addresses, phone numbers, license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions. If a problem does occur, this information will help law enforcement locate the contractor.
  • When you pay your contractor, ask for a lien waiver. A lien waiver is a receipt that states that the workers and material suppliers will not ask you for money once you have paid the contractor. Beware of any request by a contractor to have you sign a statement that says you will cover the costs of materials and labor if the contractor does not pay.
  • Before you let in anyone who claims to have been sent by a utility company to inspect your home, ask for identification. Representatives of utilities and reputable businesses will have proper identification. When in doubt, call the company to verify the identity of the worker.

Note: Come December 31, 2005, home improvement contractors who do business in New Jersey will have to register under requirements established by the New Jersey Contractors’ Registration Act, a law enacted last year. To date, Consumer Affairs has received more than 14,000 applications from home improvement contractors for processing’.

Charities Solicitations

For those who receive charities solicitations:

  • Give to charities you know and trust – never give to a charity you know nothing about. Ask for literature and read it. Ask questions. Honest charities encourage you to do so.
  • Check whether the organization is registered with Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Section or exempt from the registration requirements. You may confirm whether an organization is registered or exempt by calling the unit at 973-504-6215. You may also confirm registration online at www.njconsumeraffairs.com/charfrm.htm.
  • Find out how long the organization has been in operation and ask to see its financial reports. These reports, called 990s, are available by calling Consumer Affairs’ Charities Section. They reveal how much money the organization takes in each year, how much it spends on the causes it claims to represent and how much it pays toward administrative, management and professional fund-raising fees. General financial information about a registered charity is also available at www.njconsumeraffairs.com/charfrm.htm.
  • Don’t be fooled by a convincing name. A dishonest charity will often have an impressive name or one that closely resembles the name of a respected, legitimate concern.
  • Don’t succumb to pressure. Don’t let yourself be pressured into giving, and don’t feel you have to contribute on the spot. No legitimate organization will expect you to contribute immediately, even if you have given in the past.
  • Ask if the charity uses a professional fundraiser and, if so, what percentage of your contribution will actually go toward the flood relief efforts and how much will be used to pay the fundraiser.
  • Beware of unsolicited and phony e-mail notices that claim to be from a charity asking for your credit card information. This scam is called “phishing” and could be used by thieves to commit identity theft. If the charity is unfamiliar to you, check whether the group is registered with Consumer Affairs’ Charities Section. If the organization is registered or if you know the organization, call the group directly to find out if the e-mail notice is valid.
  • Never give your credit card number to strangers over the phone or Internet!

Auto Repair

For residents whose cars were damaged by the floods, remember:

  • Check out auto repair shops by calling Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Service Center .
  • Ask friends and neighbors if they know a reliable mechanic.
  • Check to see if the shop is accredited by the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP). MAP is an industry-sponsored organization that has established Uniform Inspection Guidelines for inspecting vehicles and recommending repairs.
  • Get a cost estimate in writing and be sure to remind the mechanic to get your authorization before making repairs not listed on the original repair order. Auto repair shops are required by law to do so.
  • If you believe the mechanic has recommended unnecessary work or you are dissatisfied with the estimate, get a second opinion.
  • If the work is guaranteed, get all the warranty information in writing on the repair order or bill.

Price Gouging

On April 3, 2005, Acting Governor Codey declared a State of Emergency in New Jersey. Under the Consumer Fraud Act, it is unlawful during a state of emergency or within 30 days of the termination of a state of emergency to charge excessive prices -- or a price that is 10 percent more than the original price -- for any merchandise needed as a direct result of an emergency or to “sustain the life, health, safety or comfort” of individuals or their property.

To file a complaint:

If you believe you are the victim of home repair fraud, auto repair fraud or price gouging, contact Consumer Affairs’ Consumer Service Center at 800-242-5846 (if calling from within the State of New Jersey) or 973-504-6200. A complaint form will be mailed to you for you to fill out and mail back to Consumer Affairs. You may also log onto Consumer Affairs’ Web site to file your complaint online: www.njconsumeraffairs.com. Click on “complaint forms” and go to the “OCP Complaint Form.”

If you believe you are the victim of charities fraud, you may contact Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Section at 973-504-6215 to file a complaint.


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