As communities across New Jersey recover from the devastating impact of Tropical Storm Ida, Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck and the Division of Consumer Affairs are urging residents to beware of scams related to ongoing post-storm rebuilding efforts.
“Natural disasters like Tropical Storm Ida create opportunities for scammers and con artists to prey on people made vulnerable by the storm’s impact,” said Bruck. “We’re committed to holding those who violate our laws accountable, and are reminding everyone to be on the lookout for fraud and know how to avoid it.”
From price gouging on goods and services and unscrupulous contractors, to bogus disaster-relief charities and the sale of flood-damaged vehicles, the aftermath of a natural disaster can be fraught with financial dangers, especially for those preoccupied with finding temporary housing, getting their property repaired, or helping out others in need.
“This storm has left people across New Jersey in a state of shock and uncertainty as they begin trying to recover from the damage and losses they suffered and that, unfortunately, makes them prime targets for scammers,” said Sean P. Neafsey, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “The division stands ready to investigate and enforce the laws that protect consumers against price gouging, repair scams, charity scams, and other disaster-related fraud. But there is no greater protection against fraud than an educated, alert consumer, and we’re urging residents to be on the lookout for the kinds of exploitation most commonly seen after devastating storms.”
The Division of Consumer affairs has a number of resources available to help consumers avoid disaster-related scams in English and Spanish. The tips include:
- Beware of excessive price increases on essential items and services such as water, food, generators, gas, tows, and tree removal. New Jersey’s price gouging law prohibits excessive price increases during a declared state of emergency, or for 30 days after the termination of the state of emergency. Report potential excessive price increases to the Division by filing a complaint online or calling (973) 504-6240;
- Before making a charitable donation to a disaster-relief fund, check with the Division to confirm that the charity is registered to solicit in New Jersey, and ask for details on how the money will be used to assist those affected by the storm;
- Before entering a contract for home repairs, verify that the contractor is properly registered with the Division and check to see if the business has been the subject of consumer complaints or legal action by the Division. Be suspicious if asked to pay for the entire project in advance. The general rule of thumb is to pay no more than one-third beforehand, one-third halfway through, and one-third upon completion;
- Be on the lookout for individuals who offer assistance to remove downed trees or debris at inflated prices or demand up-front payments for immediate service;
- Never give financial information to strangers over the phone, text or email; and
- Demand identification before you let anyone who claims to be from a utility company inspect your home.
The Division of Consumer Affairs offers the following tips on Spotting a Flood-Damaged Car. They include:
- Obtain a vehicle history report from the dealer to verify if the car has been damaged in the past;
- Look for evidence of water damage on the upholstery and the carpet. Be sure to check in the trunk and under the floor mats. Feel around for damp spots, especially in the seat padding which takes longer to dry;
- Search for rusting on screws, seat springs and other metal areas where water would not normally be expected to intrude;
- Be alert to any mold or musty odors as well as smells of excessive shampooing, strong air-fresheners or sanitizers throughout the vehicle;
- Test all of the lights, gauges and electronic systems to see if they are operational;
- Lift the hood and inspect the engine compartment for dirt, sand or residue; and
- Look for fog or condensation in the headlights, taillights, and instrument panel.
For more tips on how to spot and report disaster-related scams, consumers can visit njconsumeraffairs.gov/ida. Additional Tropical Storm Ida information and resources can be found at nj.gov/ida.