Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has advised Floridians affected by Hurricane Rita to use extra caution when hiring workers to help clean up the damage caused by the storm. In particular, Crist warned those who are victims of flooding to be alert for contractors who offer water removal services from homes and property.
With many residents in South Florida facing the prospect of removing significant amounts of water from their property, it is likely that legitimate contractors will be mixed with those seeking to profit at the expense of storm victims. Consumers face the risk that services will be offered by those who are not licensed, that clean-up services will be offered at unconscionable prices, or that so-called “contractors” will accept down payments but will not do the work at all.
“Overcharging citizens in dire need of goods and services is not only unacceptable, it is illegal,” said Crist. “Understandably, those affected are anxious to put their lives back together as soon as possible, but they need to protect themselves from con artists. The Attorney General’s Office is fighting price gouging as aggressively as we did last year.”
Crist provided a series of guidelines for consumers to protect themselves from unscrupulous water removal contractors – or any other repair contractors – including:
* Before signing a contract, check the payment terms and other provisions carefully. Don’t pay a contractor in advance.
* Do not pay cash to home repair contractors or tree removal services.
* Require home repair contractors to obtain all necessary government licenses and permits, rather than leaving that burden on the consumer.
* Make sure contractors have proper occupational licenses as required by state law.
* Work only with reputable, established businesses. Avoid “contractors” who knock on your door offering to fix your roof or windows. Try to obtain more than one estimate for the repair work.
Crist also advised residents to report suspected cases of price gouging, which can carry stiff penalties following a gubernatorial declaration of a state of emergency. Investigators from the Attorney General’s Office have been mobilized to crack down on price gouging on items that are in high demand following a hurricane such as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and generators.
During last year’s record-setting hurricane season, Crist’s office received 8,911 complaints through its price gouging hotline, and has logged more than 3,000 complaints so far this year. Following last year’s hurricanes, the office initiated 58 formal investigations and filed 13 price gouging lawsuits against hotels, generator businesses, tree removal companies and other businesses.
To date the Attorney General’s Office has recovered more than $725,000 in restitution for Florida consumers from settlements and other resolutions. Other investigations and settlement negotiations are ongoing.
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