Angie's Tips On Avoiding Storm Scams

Severe weather could be headed for regions hard hit by superstorm Sandy, so many homeowners are scrambling to make repairs. The rush might make them vulnerable to so-called storm chasers — con artists posing as contractors. Host Michel Martin speaks with Angie Hicks, founder of the website Angie's List, for tips on how to avoid home repair scams.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to matters of personal finance. If you were hit by Superstorm Sandy, then you probably already know why there are estimates that the cost of repairing the damage could run into the billions and, for many individual homeowners, the need to make repairs feels increasingly urgent because winter is coming. And that sense of urgency leaves many people who aren't handy or who don't have friends and family who are handy at the mercy of so-called storm chasers and you know who they are, people who have no skills or training or perhaps don't even have any intention of doing the work, but who show up after a storm, take people's money and move on.

Here to tell us more about how to avoid getting caught up in home repair scams is a name that you probably know. Angie Hicks. She is the Angie in the website, Angie's List. That's a site that helps consumers share and rate their experience with service providers and she's with us now.

Thanks so much for joining us.

ANGIE HICKS: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, when you talk about storm chasers, what are the kinds of services that you're most worried about and what is the typical MO?

HICKS: Well, when a storm comes through like this, obviously, there's lots of roof damage, tree damage, you know, water damage, so it's not unusual that you might see folks coming in who are claiming to be roofers or especially tree removal, I mean, just because that tends to be an easier project to potentially pick up on the fly. They're coming in, saying, hey, I can do that work for you and, you know, potentially asking for cash up front.

Another common one I hear is, you know, I was just doing some work down the street and I see you have a tree down. I can take care of that. Unfortunately, what happens is a lot of - sometimes, those folks aren't really looking out for your best interests and you need to be very careful about that because now more than ever is a time you want to be sure that you hire the right company because you don't want to make an already bad situation worse.

MARTIN: You know, it's been reported that there was a massive influx of so-called storm chasers in the south after Hurricane Katrina and this was widely reported on, so this is not a new phenomenon. Why do you think it is that people still continue to get caught in these situations?

HICKS: I think it comes down to - people are stressed. It's a dire situation. They want to get things fixed right away and, you know, in a perfect world, they would patiently look through and find the most appropriate provider, but they end up leaping and, unfortunately, you know, they think they're following their gut instinct and sometimes these folks can seem really nice and seem like it's going to be a good thing, but you just need to be extra careful. I think it's very hard when you're - you know, you're struggling for your basic items like, you know, electricity and things like that, it's hard to think about kind of making sure that you're doing every last detail.

But, you know, it's important because, you know, if you have someone working on your roof, I mean, your roof should last 20, 30 years, so you don't want someone working on your roof who's not experienced.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Angie Hicks. That's a name you should know from the list, Angie's List. It's a website that aggregates consumer reviews of service providers and we're talking about how to avoid being scammed by people who claim to be contractors and repair people, especially in the wake of a tragic situation like the Superstorm Sandy.

One of the things that occurs to me is that people who aren't handy might be reluctant to challenge a contractor's opinion about a repair that's needed and then, sometimes...

HICKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...as you've told people, you should try to always get three different estimates, particularly for a major job, but what if they're wildly different? How do you reconcile it, especially if this is beyond your own expertise?

HICKS: Right. And that's why three helps, so getting two, you may not be able to pick which one's the outlier. Getting three, you can usually tell, so that's important. And, you know, you're right. People get flustered and they are frustrated and want to make a decision to get it fixed quickly and you just - you know, and some of it, you're going to have to be patient because the companies are going to rank the jobs based on severity, but a lot of times, they will give you suggestions for how to tide yourself over, whether - you know, whether it's - you need to get a tarp on the roof or some things like that. They'll usually attempt to do that, as well.

The other thing I like to remind people is to read things. A lot of times, people don't read what they're signing and, you know, unfortunately, I've heard stories where people have thought they were signing one thing and actually signed something different. A great example was someone thought they were signing a document to give the contractor permission to talk to their insurance company, but what, in fact, they gave them permission to do was to do the work if the insurance company agreed. So be sure you're reading everything you're signing and get as much in writing as possible.

MARTIN: Well, that really points to another point that you make, which is to get something in writing and, if a person doesn't have any documentation for you, doesn't have a written contract and who - this was another favorite that I read on your site, which is - you know, lists his truck as his permanent address. Kind of want to think that is a red flag.

HICKS: Right. You know, it's hard to chase down a P.O. box, so it's much easier if they have a physical address. You can check their licensing information. All of that information's going to be important and, even if they are working - you know, I mean, a lot of these companies are working, you know, day and night, trying to - you know, to get the consumers to help them out. They should still be willing to write things down for you.

MARTIN: You say never pay up front for repair jobs, especially not cash. But don't you sometimes have to pay for materials to start a job? So what's reasonable?

HICKS: Sure, sure. So you may, for example, if you're putting a whole new roof on your house, you may be paying up front for part of the shingles, but that should be documented and listed out as payment for the shingles and you should get proof from the supplier that that's exactly how much the shingles cost.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, I'm thinking a lot of people listening to this might already be in a panic mode. You know, I'm thinking it's getting colder. I've got, you know...

HICKS: Right.

MARTIN: I'm trying to secure my property now. You know, it sounds great to get three estimates, but I am cold now and I've got water in my basement now and I've got to do something. Is there - what's the best piece of advice that you can give people who really do feel stressed by their circumstances and really feel like they've got to make a move? They feel kind of trapped.

HICKS: I would go, you know, hire a local company. Also, you know, be sure that you are getting things in writing and do not hire the company that solicits you.

MARTIN: Angie Hicks is the founder and chief marketing officer of the website, Angie's List. That's a website that aggregates consumer reviews of service providers. We spoke to her from their headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Angie Hicks, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HICKS: Thank you.

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