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How to protect yourself from hurricane repair scams

  • Insurers are strapped from twin disasters like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
  • It's not uncommon for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the situation.
  • Be wary of common fraud signals, and document all damage and communications closely.
Local resident Vishnu Obregon in the Brickell neighborhood as Hurricane Irma passes Miami, Florida, U.S. September 10, 2017.
Stephen Yang | Reuters
Local resident Vishnu Obregon in the Brickell neighborhood as Hurricane Irma passes Miami, Florida, U.S. September 10, 2017.

Homeowners affected by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have already absorbed a body blow from damaged homes and lost possessions.

Now, they're bracing for another: repair scams.

After weather calamities, fraudsters — also known as "storm chasers" — exploit the severe strain on insurance companies. In affected cities, like Houston, due to the extent of damage, insurers have had to recruit independent claims adjusters, some from out of state. This gives scammers an opportunity to sell themselves to unsuspecting homeowners.

The overall bill will be steep: The cost of Irma and Harvey will range between $150 billion to $200 billion, including property damage and lost output.

While filing insurance claims, consumers should keep detailed records of communications, and be wary of potential scammers.

"If you find yourself in a situation where you signed the dotted line without checking with your insurance company first, give them a call," Chris Hackett, senior director at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told CNBC.

"If someone shows up at your house unannounced and claims to be an insurance adjuster, do not invite them into your home.  Ask for company ID. If they don't have any, ask them to leave your property and shut the door." -Katherine Hutt, Better Business Bureau

Government assistance is available

In the meantime, government agencies are stepping in. U.S. attorneys in four Florida districts have formed fraud task forces. The National Center for Disaster Fraud, formed in response to Hurricane Katrina, also has a hotline.

Also in Florida, the nonprofit Citizens Property United, which provides insurance for homeowners who can't obtain private coverage, has warned policyholders to "be wary of unlicensed contractors or deals that sound too good to be true."

Other organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau, make public consumers' accounts of scams. Victims of fraud are encouraged to report incidents, too.

"It's terrible that there are people who will take advantage of storm victims, but we see it all the time at BBB," said spokeswoman Katherine Hutt. "Storm victims need to protect themselves and be vigilant."

"If someone shows up at your house unannounced and claims to be an insurance adjuster, do not invite them into your home. Ask for company ID. If they don't have any, ask them to leave your property and shut the door," Hutt said. "If they do have identification, call your insurance company to verify. Don't give them any information until you've confirmed their identity, and never give them any money."

Beware that phony insurance adjusters and contractor scammers will frequently insert themselves between homeowners and insurance companies, according to Angie Hicks, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Angie's List, a home-services consumer-review site.

For homeowners, here are some precautions to take:

  1. File a claim with your insurance company as soon as possible.
  2. Document the destruction. Take detailed, interior and exterior photos of your home, said Hicks.
  3. Don't hire just any contractor or adjuster. "The first impulse might be to hire the first contractor who comes along," Hackett said. Ask for proof of identity, Hicks said.
  4. Pay via credit card or check to create a paper trail. No cash.
  5. Pay for repairs incrementally. "Don't pay for all work upfront before work begins," Hackett said.
  6. Do your homework. Research consumer-review sites. Consult with trustworthy people — family, friends, neighbors — before hiring a contractor.
  7. Get several estimates on the cost of damages.
  8. Continue to pay your mortgage. Doing so protects your credit score and helps you avoid defaulting on a loan. Also ask your insurance agent and bank to explain what's covered versus what's negotiable. "These are extenuating circumstances, so ask for leeway on what is most important to you; the worst they can say is no," Hicks said.
  9. Try to limit further damage. "Protect or repair what you can, but keep all receipts for materials to give to your adjuster," Hicks said.