Oklahoma contractors warn storm victims of potential scams
Barely a week after an EF-5 tornado ripped a 17-mile-wide path through Moore, Okla., and surrounding areas, several highly rated contractors say scammers are already starting to target local residents. While recently tarping a client’s roof in Moore, David Fonzi, a manager at highly rated A-List Construction in Oklahoma City, says a neighbor approached him to ask how much he'd charge to cover her roof. “I said, ‘Nothing. We’ll get it whenever the insurance comes in,’” he says.
The woman had lost her checkbook, Fonzi says, and had gone to the bank to get temporary checks to make an upfront payment for the emergency service to another roofer. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll go up and tarp it,’” Fonzi says, cautioning homeowners to never make advance payments to contractors for emergency service following a storm. “If you have a reputable contractor, we will get paid for it when the insurance [adjuster] comes out. Don’t ever start paying out of pocket to do those temporary repairs.
“It’s not about … making money at that point in time," he adds. "It’s helping people out and getting their stuff taken care of so they’re not having more damages and losing more personal property in the process.”
Oklahoma attorney general issues warnings
To help protect storm victims, the Oklahoma attorney general's office distributed emergency packets to residents in Caddo, Cleveland, Comanche, Creek, Garfield, Grant, Greer, Kiowa, Lincoln, Logan, McClain, Okfuskee, Oklahoma, Pawnee, Payne and Pottawatomie counties, following reports from local law enforcement that criminals known as ‘travelers’ had been spotted in the Moore area, says Diane Clay, the AG's director of communications. The AG says "traveling" contractors often drive vehicles with out-of-state license plates, solicit work door-to-door and pressure residents into making immediate decisions for cash-only deals. The emergency packets outline prevention tips, resources and the law regarding price gouging.
On Tuesday, the AG also issued a warning to residents of a new scam involving criminals pulling legitimate home sale information from Realtor websites and posting it online as rental property. The scammers ask renters to wire money to rent the property, but the money never reaches a Realtor and the property turns out not to be for rent, according to the AG's office. In one case, the AG says a Florida family lost money trying to rent a temporary home in the Oklahoma City area for family members who had lost their home in the tornadoes. Attorney General Scott Pruitt advises consumers to inspect any property before renting and exchange money in person.
Hire local, but confirm credentials
Homeowners can avoid fly-by-night contractors by hiring an established, local company, says Donn Lipscomb, owner of highly rated Moore’s Roofing & Insulation in Oklahoma City. In his 38 years in the business, Lipscomb says he’s watched plenty of out-of-town roofers come into devastated areas and buy out local businesses to quickly obtain a local company name, phone and address. Then they perform shoddy work before leaving town, he says.
“The last storm we had, it was about 10 to 1 out-of-state roofers to in-state roofers, and they came in and did a ton of work,” Lipscomb says. “Then every week after that for the next six months, I got calls on, ‘My roof is leaking. My shingles are blowing off. They didn’t do this. They didn’t do that, and I can’t get ahold of them.’ So they thought they were getting a bargain on their roof when they weren’t.”
Lipscomb says he’s also heard of roofers who claim to offer free inspections, but instead go on top of your roof to scope the property for valuables. “There are a lot of people who just get up on your roof to see what kind of things they can steal from you when they come back that night,” he says. “So I never understand how people let somebody they didn’t even call come get on their roof. If that person falls off their roof, you’re responsible for it.”
Vet contractors' licensing/insurance
Roofing contractors in Oklahoma must be registered by the state's Department of Health, Occupational Licensing Department, and provide proof of insurance. Homeowners can check a roofer's license on the state's Construction Industries Board website.
Plumbers, HVAC contractors and electricians must be licensed by the state. In addition to researching a contractor's credentials, Fonzi recommends calling his or her references and asking about previous work.
Once you decide to hire, take caution before signing any contracts, experts say. Randy Jasinski, owner of highly rated Randy’s Roofing in Moore, says he’s heard of homeowners signing blank contracts in the aftermath of last week's deadly tornado. “[Contractors are] telling them, ‘We’ll argue with your insurance company. We’ll get more money, so we don’t put a number down here because the number’s gonna change through the insurance,’” he says, but points out that any home improvement contract should be completely filled out and include a set price.
Phil Ostrander, government relations liaison for the Oklahoma Construction Industries Board, agrees. "We haven’t received any reports about blank contracts yet, but it’s been a problem in the past," Ostrander says. "It would be extremely unwise to sign such a contract. I don’t believe there are any legal requirements that a contract actually list a price, but you would be ill-advised to sign a contract that has any blanks in it.”
Oklahoma City Angie’s List member Valerie Kelley, a victim of last week's tornado as well as the EF-5 tornado in May 1999, says it's important not to rush the process. Her home was completely destroyed in 1999, and sustained heavy damage to windows, the roof and garage in last week's storm. She says the process of finding temporary housing and rebuilding in a new location took six months after the '99 storm. “Once you lose everything, you are in a panic to get a home back,” she says.
Kelley advises taking your time, researching your contractors and avoiding those offering deals that are too good to be true. In her rush, she admits she went the cheap route and replaced nearly everything that could be replaced. As she looks to repair the damaged caused by last week's tornado, she’s taking a much different approach and hopes other homeowners do the same. “Don’t hurry the process,” she says. “You’ll regret it.”
— Additional reporting by Paul F.P. Pogue and Staci Giordullo
Video by Rachel Hardy