Fla. Attorney General Cautions Hurricane Wilma Victims To Use Care In Hiring Workers

October 24, 2005

Attorney General Charlie Crist has advised Floridians to use extra caution when hiring workers to help clean up the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma. In particular, Crist warned those who are victims of water damage and downed trees to be alert for contractors who offer water removal or cleanup services for homes and property.

A release cautioned residents in the southern portions of Florida who are facing significant cleanup to weed out legitimate contractors mixed in with those seeking to profit at the expense of storm victims. The info said that consumers face the risk that cleanup services will be offered by unlicensed contractors at unconscionably high prices, or that so-called “contractors” will accept down payments but will not do the work at all.

“I fully support a business’ right to make a profit, but we cannot accept unjust profiteering, especially when it puts an extra burden on citizens who have just endured a significant hurricane,” Crist said. “Floridians affected by Hurricane Wilma will need all the help they can get, and we will do our part by making sure price gouging is not in the equation.”

Crist provided a series of guidelines for consumers to protect themselves from unscrupulous 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 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.

Already this year the Attorney General’s Office has received more than 4,300 complaints related to price gouging associated with earlier Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Rita, and has filed two lawsuits against Tallahassee gas stations for alleged price gouging during Katrina. In addition, the office has subpoenaed four oil companies for records associated with gas prices during Dennis and Katrina.

During last year’s record-setting hurricane season, Crist’s office received 8,911 complaints through its price gouging hotline. 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 $939,000 in restitution for Florida consumers from settlements and other resolutions. Other investigations and settlement negotiations are ongoing.

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