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Scammers live for emergencies like the current cold snap that brings Texas to its knees, but authorities say you can take steps to protect yourself.
Already now, state officials are warning of a phishing scam on social media in which private utility account numbers are requested and promise to restore the blackouts from the blackouts. Don’t fall for it, authorities warn. Your private data is not needed to restore the power supply.
And since the winter storm created a plague of frozen water pipes and broken pipes, you can be sure that claws are waiting in wings to take advantage of those desperately trying to repair their flooded homes. The attorney general’s consumer protection agency in Texas is warning of unsolicited door-to-door home improvement offers. If your home needs repair, state and local officials say it’s best to call a few plumbers or repair companies in your area for quotes and then review references, licenses, and complaints.
Look here for licensed plumbers in Texas.
Find licensed electricians, HVAC professionals, and others here.
Check for complaints here at the Better Business Bureau.
What to do before hiring a contractor
Take the time to carefully choose the person who will be working on your house. It is a good idea to choose a contractor with a fixed physical address. Make sure you can find anyone who has worked on your house in case any problems arise.
- Receive at least three offers for your project and compare them carefully. The lowest bid may not always be the best value.
- All contractors must obtain approval to do their work (the City of Austin exceptions are listed here). So be careful of a contractor asking you to seek approval on their behalf and see if approval is not required. The party that receives the permit is ultimately responsible for work that does not comply with city law. Additions or changes to your home that violate the city code could affect property transfers or insurance requirements should you decide to sell your home.
- Use only licensed traders and request proof of a current license. A license is required for the following trades: electricians, plumbers, air conditioning and irrigation companies. Traders must be licensed in the state of Texas and registered with the city of Austin before they can get a permit and do any work.
- Request and review references and request a list and photos of projects similar to yours.
- Contact the Better Business Bureau for complaints about your contractor.
- Before starting your project, request proof of a building permit and all necessary business permits. Monitor your contractor’s inspection records throughout the project.
More:Austin Water Company offers these tips to help protect your pipes
How to spot a scam
If you spot any of these tactics, stop and walk away, state authorities say. You are likely to be scammed.
- They contacted you. When you reach out to a company, you know who’s on the other end of the line. But when someone contacts you first, you can’t be sure who they are. Email addresses and caller ID information can be forged.
- Do not sign a contract with spaces. If the blanks are filled in later, the new terms are likely not in your favor. Do not sign a contract until you have carefully read and understood every word. Depending on the type of work, you may want to specify the type (quality or thickness) of the materials used.
- Don’t be fooled into signing a contract. The seller should be willing to leave the contract with you so that you can read it carefully in your spare time. If someone rushes you, tries to get you there to sign, or doesn’t leave a copy for you to study, you should be suspicious of that person and the contract. A cancellation notice giving you the right to change your mind within three working days must be attached if the transaction takes place at your home.
- It can be difficult to get out of a signed contract. And most contractors don’t allow you to change your mind about what you want to do or how you want to do it for free. Often times, a contractor charges a service fee for changing the work order, which should be specified in the contract. Receive and keep copies of everything you sign at the time of signing.
- Beware of the “low ball” bidder whose price is much lower than anyone else’s. Question the quality of the materials used and the work done. A very low bidder may not plan to include all of the specific work you expect and may use very cheap, inexperienced labor or second rate materials. Most legitimate bids should fall within a fairly narrow range.
- Don’t pay for anything in advance. Most contractors ask for a partial payment before starting work (except in certain post-disaster cases when this is not allowed). However, door-to-door rip-off scammers will notoriously ask for full prepayment and then disappear before the job is done. You shouldn’t pay in full until the job is done and you have checked it out for yourself and found it to be satisfactory. A payment schedule usually specifies at which points in the order partial payments are due. Review the work and make sure the contractor was on schedule before making any payments. Do not sign a certificate of completion until all work has been completed, the website has been cleaned and you are satisfied.
More:Generators at Austin Pets Alive after a cry for help
What to do if you want to help
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has the following tips for those looking to provide assistance:
- Look out for organizations that use names that are very similar to more well-known, reputable organizations. An example could be givetotheredcross.org instead of redcross.org.
- Be wary of groups that fail to provide evidence that a contribution is tax deductible.
- Look out for those who say thank you for a promise you can’t remember.
- Avoid anyone using high pressure tactics such as: For example, trying to get you to donate immediately without giving you time to think about it or do research.
- Never give to someone who is asking for cash or asking you to transfer money.
If you come across a charity that you suspect may be fraudulent, contact the Department of Justice at Disaster@leo.gov, they will track down and close such attempted scams.