How to watch out for home improvement scams in the wake of storms
More than a month after wind and hail from a Memorial Day storm damaged his Naperville house, Steve Bernas still had a mailbox stuffed with home improvement flyers.
He estimates he must have received 100 or so leaflets in the weeks after the storm.
But Bernas knows more than most about how to distinguish between a reputable contractor looking to help and a con artist looking to make a quick buck.
As president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, Bernas was a sought-after expert for neighbors dealing with storm cleanup and the arrival of so-called "storm chasers."
These weren't the adrenaline junkies who chase tornadoes -- these were the folks who show up on your doorstep offering to make repairs.
Some are legit. Some are not. But it's always best to proceed with caution.
In Bernas' neighborhood, contractors showed up with license plates from as far as Florida and Iowa.
"There are bad actors that will ruin it for everyone else," Bernas said.
After reports of large hail across the suburbs this week and with forecasts for more severe weather, the Daily Herald asked Bernas to share tips about avoiding storm-related scams. State's attorney's offices also have compiled guidelines. Here's their advice:
1. Ask contractors for references, licensing and proof of insurance.
2. Seek two or three bids from different companies.
3. Never pay cash. If you write a check, make it out to the company and not the individual. Paying with a credit card provides better protection in the event of shoddy repairs, Bernas said.
4. State law requires contractors to provide a written contract for repairs of $1,000 or more, the BBB notes.
"Everything should be in writing, especially your side conversations, because there's always side conversations," said Bernas, citing responsibility for debris cleanup as an example of something that should be specified in the contract.
5. Stay away from "high-pressure" sales tactics, Bernas said. Scammers want handshake deals instead of contracts.
6. Know your town's rules for permits and solicitors. In Naperville, for instance, solicitors licensed by the city have to wear a photo ID badge and safety vest issued by the clerk's office.
7. Check BBB for customer reviews and an e-quote service at bbbquotes.org that lets homeowners get up to three free quotes from businesses vetted by the BBB, without them showing up at your house, Bernas said. Your insurance company also can give referrals.
"Your insurance company is your best friend right now," Bernas said of storm-ravaged homeowners. "You've got to contact them right away."
8. The Illinois attorney general's office suggests calling its consumer fraud hotline (1-800-386-5438 in Chicago, 1-800-243-0618 in Springfield, and 1-800-243-0607 in Carbondale) to see if any complaints have been filed against a particular business.
9. If your basement floods or your roof is leaking, you urgently need repairs. Which is why you should already know a reliable plumber or electrician so you're not scrambling to do your research in a crisis, Bernas said.
"You don't wait for a situation like this to happen," he said.