Like most seniors, Margaret wasn’t a wealthy woman but had enough in savings to live comfortably. While sitting on her porch one spring day, a man drove up in front of her house in a pick-up truck with equipment in the back and ladders on the roof. The sign on the side said “Smith Construction, Helping People for 25 Years.”
He got out of the truck, looked at Margaret and pointed to the roof. “Looks like you got a problem, ma’am. I was driving past and I saw that the flashing on your roof is loose. A good wind will take that right off.” “How much will that cost?” Margaret asked. “Well, you remind me a lot of my great aunt so nothing at all,” the man said. “I’ve got extra material and tar right here in the truck.” And with that, he was up the ladder and seemingly hard at work. Ten minutes and one tar covered brush later, the man came back down the ladder, only now with bad news for Margaret.
What started out as a “Let me help you for free” minor roofing job turned into a ten-thousand dollar repair that she never needed in the first place. Margaret is the victim of a common home improvement scam.
Every year, thousands of thieves take advantage of senior citizens by utilizing this scam. According to a recent study released by the U.S. Department of Justice, 3.6 million or 3% of all households in the U.S. have been victimized by some sort of a home repair or improvement scam. Of these victims, nearly 61% are senior citizens age sixty or older and in Pennsylvania alone, these thefts accounted for 71% of the complaints filed with the Pa. Attorney General’s Office.
These scammers are successful for many reasons but mainly because most of the victims are unwilling or unable to get up on a roof and see the “problem” for themselves In addition to knowing their victim’s physical limitations, scammers also use many tricks and props to facilitate their deception. These props may include a bucket of black paint to resemble a fresh tar repair job or pieces of broken shingle or flashing taken not from the roof but brought with the thief to show the victim.
Once the thief has the victim lured into a false sense of security, they now take advantage of the victim’s trust and their bank account. The age of the personal computer and “do it yourself” printing and business promotion kits even permits the thief to be armed with a variety of official looking paperwork including business cards, flyers, brochures and job estimate forms. After the victim is hooked, the scam artist will often keep “retuning to the well” and build a relationship of trust with the victim. In many cases, trusting seniors have even been talked into handing over blank checks.
Here are a few suggestions that can help you avoid becoming a victim:
1.) Avoid hiring anyone who has solicited you. As we’ve seen in Margaret’s case, a man approached her out of the blue and offered to do labor for free. A true professional, when called by the homeowner, will give a written estimate detailing labor and materials before any work begins.
2.) Always check credentials through a third party of your choosing a contractor. Don’t accept the reference given by the contractor. They are likely family or friends. Always check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
3.) Contact your local police department and ask if there are any complaints of home improvement scam artists in the area. Some communities have programs through their building inspectors geared toward victim education. The police can also tell you if the contractor has a permit to solicit you. Your local officers are there to help you so don’t ever hesitate to call them!
4.) Never pay for any improvement or construction job upfront. A reputable contractor will never ask for all monies in advance. An accepted payment or installment method is a down payment or advance, a middle payment and an end payment when the job is completed. Run far away from any contractor who wants all of the money up front. It’s a good bet they and your cash will disappear as soon as your check clears.
5.) Get multiple estimates on the work and get them in writing. After selecting a contractor, get in writing: Their full name, address, telephone number, their insurance information, a complete description of the type of work to be done, all materials used, a start and estimated completion date, a total cost of ALL work performed and an agreed payment method and schedule.
6.) Never sign a contract with blank spaces. This allows for deception such as the scam artist adding on extra work and/or materials that you did not agree to.
7.) Ask to obtain lien waivers. This protects you from a shady contractor placing a lien on your home or property in the event sub contractors or secondary workers employed and paid by your contractor are not paid.
8.) Find out if the materials that the contractor is using have guarantees or warranties. If they do, get those warranties in writing. You should have a copy and hold the paperwork on those guarantees, not the contractor.
9.) If you are physically unable to inspect the completed work, ask someone you know to inspect it for you. You may even be able to contact your local building inspector for assistance.
10.) When in doubt or if something doesn’t seem quite right, DON’T HIRE THAT CONTRACTOR. Listen to your inner voice… it’s talking to you for a reason!
Crime prevention is accomplished by knowledge and awareness. Following these few simple steps may save you personal frustration and financial hardship. An honest and legitimate contractor will have no qualms providing any information you request. Just remember two important rules: “When in doubt, check them out” and “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”