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Homeowners should know their rights when it comes to disaster recovery

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One of the homes destroyed by the recent wildfire in San Marcos. AP Photo/U-T San Diego, Howard Lipin

Whenever a wildfire, hurricane or some other natural disaster threatens an area, residents are told to evacuate for their safety.

But once the storm passes, the danger isn't necessarily over.

Homeowners, and even renters, have to be wary of scam artists trying to take advantage of their bad fortune.

California residents have numerous ways they can legally protect themselves from fraud, according to industry experts.

The biggest danger comes from unlicensed contractors, said Alan Kessler, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who is part of the district attorney's wildfire task force.

"The most important thing we can do in the area of [crime] prevention is by educating people and having a strong visual presence in the area to deter people who don’t belong," he said.

Members of the task force, which includes investigators from the California Department of Insurance, the Contractors State License Board and the Department of Motor Vehicles, recently went into areas affected by last month's wildfires, disseminating literature and speaking with residents about fraud prevention. The group also posted signs warning unlicensed contractors that operating in a declared state of emergency area is a felony.

During states of emergency, it is illegal for businesses to increase the prices of essential goods and services by more than 10 percent. The law applies to food, goods or services used for emergency cleanup, medical supplies, home heating oil, building materials, housing, transportation and gasoline. In addition, it is a misdemeanor for a hotel or motel to increase regular rates.

Looting during states of emergency is a felony, which can be punishable by three years in prison, according to the district attorney's office.

“Families should be extremely cautious if approached by aggressive agents, adjusters or contractors after a disaster,” California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said in a statement announcing the task force. “While the majority of businesses are honest and have good intentions, unfortunately, there are always bad actors waiting to take advantage of disaster victims.”

San Diego's Sean Scott has written a book on what families can do to help them get back on their feet following a natural disaster. "The Red Guide to Recovery" is regularly given out for free in affected areas by local fighter fighters.

"Once the first responders leave the scene, you are on your own," Scott said in describing the inspiration behind his book. "What happens is you get all these vultures that come out of the woodwork to try to prey on victims."

He said residents need to be aware of unsolicited vendors who will claim to represent you against your insurance company. There will be many vendors ready to provide their cleanup services, including deodorizing furniture and hauling off debris.

Scott said it's important to read every contract before you sign it, because it's a binding document, and he recommends consulting with an attorney to ensure what your rights are.

"You're one signature away from evolving from a survivor to a victim," he said.

Those most vulnerable are the elderly, low-income families and those with cognitive disabilities who can't make decisions on their own, Scott said.

Residents sometimes can get funds to help rebuild their home from the Federal Emergency Management Agency if they live in a presidentially declared disaster area.

Most times, they can get assistance from the group Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which is comprised of faith-based nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the Jewish Federations of North America, Habitat for Humanity and the United Way.

Kessler, the deputy district attorney, said homeowners should ask to see a contractor's license from any potential worker, and they should check the state licensing board's website to verify any information.

"[Unlicensed contractors] typically don’t have the knowledge, training or experience to do the work," he said. "Or they will try to do it on the cheap."

Scott agreed, and added residents should even ask to see a driver's license and make sure the contractor has general liability and workers' compensation insurance.

All contracts should be in writing.

Residents are required to pay 10 percent, or $1,000, down -- whichever is less -- at the start of a project. Kessler said residents should not let payments get ahead of the work being done.

Debris-clearing scams are the most common fraud that takes place in the wake of a natural disaster. Resident should be sure to ask where the debris is being taken.

According to the district attorney's office, scammers often ask for money upfront, and then disappear. Sometimes they dump debris on a neighbor’s property or park, which may cause the resident to be responsible for the costs and penalties.

Homeowners also should be wary of public adjusters and make sure they have a valid license as well.

"A lot of times [adjusters] have never built a home, so you're dealing with someone with a limited ability to accurately value the damage done to your home," Scott said. "If you appear to get low-balled, then an attorney can help you out.

"It's very hard to be patient, and it's a process that takes time," he added.

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