Consumer Watchdog tips: Before and after a hurricane

In the days before and after a hurricane, consumers must be more aware of people who want to rip them off. In these times, it’s difficult to focus on the various tasks that need to be handled. We have put together some quick tips to help aid consumers in making the right decision when disaster strikes.

Price Gouging
In the wake of a natural disaster, essentials such as fuel, food, ice, generators, lanterns, lumber, lodging, etc. – may be in short supply. Charging exorbitant or excessive prices for these and other necessities following a disaster is not only unethical, it’s illegal. Under Sections 501.160 and 501.205 Florida Statutes, it is illegal to charge unconscionable prices for goods or services following a declared state of emergency. Individuals or businesses found guilty of price gouging could face fines up to $1,000 per violation, or up to a maximum of $25,000 per day. Report price gouging by calling the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 800 HELP-FLA (435-7352), or 866 966-7226, or request a Price Gouging Complaint Form be sent to you via mail.

Home Repair
• Know your contractor. A frequent problem after a disaster is a “fly-by-night” contractor who takes deposits before starting work or final payments before finishing. Ask for a list of recent customers and call them for references.
• Get at least three estimates. Be certain the estimates are itemized and are for the same work. Variations in the proposals should be noted.
• Beware of repair businesses or individuals who solicit door-to-door, arrive in unmarked vehicles, have a post office box or temporary address, claim they are from another county or state and are in the area solely to help disaster victims or offer to work for you only if you secure the necessary permits.
• If the repairs/alterations cost more than $2,500, file a Notice of Commencement with your local permitting office, and a notarized Release of Lien will ensure your home is not sold for monies not recouped by others that might not have been paid by the contractor. To obtain information about Florida’s Construction Lien Law, call the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at 850 487-1395.
• Check on the contractor’s address, license and complaint history by contacting the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation through its website located at www.myfloridalicense.com or via telephone at 850 487-1395, or contact your city or county building department. For further complaint information, call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 800 HELP-FLA (435-7352).

Have a written contract for your repairs and understand it before you sign it.  A contract should include, the following:
• It should be specific about the work to be done and the exact type of materials to be used.
• The contract should show a beginning date and final completion date. If a penalty assessment is stated for failing to meet the completion date, the amount of the penalty should be stated and how it is to be assessed.
• The contract should specify the terms of payment.
• Any warranties or guarantees of workmanship and materials should be explicitly stated in the contract. Be sure of the duration and what is covered.
• If the contract is on a “cost plus” or hourly basis, get a written estimate and, if possible, a “ceiling” (maximum amount to be paid).
• The contract should specify that the contractor is to obtain all permits or variances, carries full insurance on all employees and subcontractors,  releases you from all liens and provides for a proper clean up.

Some home improvement or repair contracts may be canceled without penalty or obligation by midnight of the third business day after signing. They are:
• Those signed at a place other than the seller’s normal place of business, unless you requested the specific product or service.
• All door-to-door agreements, except for emergency home repairs.
• Those paid on an installment basis.

Credit and Finances
• If you are unable to pay your bills, contact your creditors and lending institutions and try to work out a payment schedule. Do not wait until they contact you for being delinquent on the payments.
• Contact the National Foundation for Consumer Credit Counseling (NFCC) at 800 388-2227 for help in negotiating with creditors.
• If seeking a loan, shop around. Compare finance charges and interest rates for various lending institutions before signing a contract.
• Avoid doing business with anyone who, for an advanced fee, “guarantees” you a loan.

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