Attorney general warns of tree removal scams following winter storms
You look outside and see toppled trees and drooping branches caused by the recent winter weather. Stormchasing scammers see the same thing and view it as an opportunity to swindle you.
Experts warn that unscrupulous contractors swoop into storm-damaged neighborhoods within days of severe weather, offer to clean up every branch, limb and twig — but they take their victims’ money and leave, often fleeing to another state.
Storms bring out swindlers
In North Carolina, the Attorney General’s Office issued a warning to homeowners to be wary of potential swindlers. The warning came on the heels of a major winter storm that devastated the Southeast and East Coast with crippling waves of ice and snow.
Ice and snow damage trees by weighing down branches, which can then snap and crash onto cars, homes and other property. Check your trees for signs of winter-storm damage, and if you need a professional, avoid door-to-door scammers and hire a reputable company.
“As soon as trucks can get on the road, you’re going to see scammers,” says Basil Camu, owner of highly rated Leaf & Limb Tree Service in Raleigh, N.C., adding that some may not be swindlers. Look out for unqualified service providers too. “You might have 10 to 20 tree service companies in your area that are reputable, and the rest are guys who have pickup trucks and chain saws and think they’re tree companies.”
Tips to avoid tree scams
The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office gives the following advice to avoid unscrupulous contractors:
• Don’t prepay for services. Pay when the company finishes its work to your satisfaction. Out-of-state scammers can collect deposits from entire neighborhoods and then flee without doing any work.
• Hire local companies with good reputations. Out-of-state businesses that travel to storm-damaged neighborhoods may not stay to finish their work.
• Research the company by asking for references, checking online reviews from a trusted source and contacting your attorney general’s office to check for complaints.
Look out for attempts at price gouging too, says Tracy Langston, owner of highly rated All Tree Experts in Marietta, Ga. Get multiple estimates, and don’t let a company pressure you into a making a hiring decision, he says.
How to hire a reputable company
Make sure you hire a company with insurance, Camu says. Don’t just ask if they have insurance, ask them for proof, he says. The certificate of insurance should, at a minimum, contain the company’s information and a date to show the coverage is current, he says.
Under ideal circumstances, he recommends customers get proof of insurance from the business’ insurance company. But for winter weather emergencies, you can accept the proof of insurance directly from the company as long as you take other steps to make sure you’re not being scammed, he says.
If you hire an uninsured company and a worker gets injured on your property, you or your insurance company will have to foot the medical bills, he says.
When to call a professional
Unless a branch crashed onto your roof or into your yard, you may not realize you need a tree service company, but check your property for signs of imminent problems.
Dealing with snow and ice following the storm? Read our winter storm survival guide.
Heavy ice and snow weigh trees down to the point they can collapse or lose heavy branches and limbs. Look for leaning trees or drooping branches near your home, house or power lines, Camu says.
Also, examine trees for signs of splintering, and check the root base — if one side is higher than the other, you should call a professional to check it out, says Chris Etheridge, owner of highly rated CCF Tree Service in Raleigh, N.C.
Make sure to consult with the company about whether you can save the tree, Langston says. If you ask a company to remove a damaged tree, they’ll often comply without considering alternatives that might be able to save the tree, he says.
Experts caution homeowners against trying to cut damaged tree branches themselves.
“If it looks like anything needs to be done to the tree and you can’t reach it by standing up, call a professional,” says Daniel Foster, owner of highly rated Green Vista in Alexandria, Va. “One of the biggest reasons homeowners get hurt is because of ladders. So when you have ice and snow like this? Don’t try climbing on a ladder. Call a reputable professional.”