Poizner Deploys Fraud Investigators to ‘Summit Fire’ Zones

June 2, 2008

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner dispatched California Department of Insurance fraud investigators and staff to the Summit Fire zones near Santa Cruz, Calif. to provide assistance to survivors as they face the daunting task of recovery.

They will advise fire survivors on how to avoid scam artists who routinely target disaster zones. Since the Summit Fire broke out, CDI investigators and staff worked collaboratively with CAL FIRE, the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department and other local and state entities to offer aid to fire survivors.

Accoding to CDI, the most common fraud occuring in the aftermath of a disaster generally involves price gouging, offers of debris removal, and fraudulent charitable solicitations. They said it is important that fire survivors keep a diligent lookout for predators playing on the emotions of those stricken by disaster. If fraudulent activity is suspected, they want to be contacted at 800-927-HELP.

Commissioner Poizner offers the following tips for Summit Fire survivors:

Survivors Who Have Suffered Losses

Contact your insurance company immediately to report your loss. Follow the instructions given to you by claims personnel. Ask questions if you do not understand your adjuster’s instructions. From the beginning, keep a log of the names of the people you speak with along with dates, times, and a summary of the pertinent points of each conversation.

Act prudently to prevent further loss to your property. Insurance policies may not cover ensuing damage if you have not taken reasonable steps to protect against subsequent property damage.

Take pictures documenting damages.

Do not rush into repairs or rebuilding without first considering all your alternatives.

Ask your insurance agent or company representative to help you with your claim, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your insurer provides an adjuster at no charge to you. If you decide to work directly with your insurer, you still have the right to hire a third-party professional (e.g., public adjuster or lawyer) to help you.

If you hire a public adjuster or attorney to help you with a claim, be certain that the adjuster is licensed and that the lawyer is in good standing. Public adjusters and lawyers will usually require a percentage of the claim settlement for their services. It is important that you understand what services are being provided and the fees that will be charged. Ask your friends, relatives, or business associates for the names of well-regarded professionals in your community.

To verify a public adjuster’s license, call the CDI.

To learn about attorneys and standards for lawyer-client fees, or to file a complaint against an attorney, contact the California State Bar at 800-843-9053.

Do not repair or replace your loss without first getting instructions from your adjuster, since your insurer’s visual inspection of your loss may be necessary before repairs begin.

Do not throw away damaged property until your adjuster advises you it is all right to do so.

Hiring a Contractor:

CDI said sales people often go door to door canvassing neighborhoods to generate new business after a disaster. While they said many of these people are honest and reputable, some are not. Below is their recommended list of steps to take to protect against unscrupulous operators posing as legitimate contractors:

Call the Contractors State License Board at 800-321-2752 or visit their Web site at www.cslb.ca.gov to check a contractor’s license number or get further information on home and property repairs.

Deal only with licensed contractors. Ask to see the contractor’s “pocket license,” together with other identification. If the person claims to be representing a contractor, but can’t show you a contractor’s license or home improvement salesperson registration card, call the contractor and find out if the person is authorized to act on the contractor’s behalf.

Do not do business with a contractor who does not carry the appropriate insurance coverage. If the contractor is not insured, you may be liable for accidents that occur on your property. Ask the contractor if he/she carries general liability and workers’ compensation insurance. Request a certificate of insurance (COI) from the contractor that shows the name of the insurance company, policy number and policy limits the contractor carries. Contact the insurance company directly to verify information on the COI.

Call the insurance adjuster assigned to your property damage claim and ask the adjuster to make an estimate of the damage and the probable cost to repair. This will provide you with a benchmark estimate prepared by a professional that you can use when negotiating with contractors.

Don’t rush into signing a contract. Collect business cards, interview several contractors, and request multiple bids for comparison. Make sure to read the fine print on all estimates and contracts.

Beware of building contractors that encourage you to spend a lot of money on temporary repairs.

Hire local, licensed contractors when possible, as it is easier to deal with a local contractor if problems develop. However, since it may not always be possible to deal with local contractors in the aftermath of a disaster, be particularly careful to thoroughly check references for out-of-town contractors.

Get everything the contractor discusses in writing. Also, if changes or modifications occur in the contract terms, they should be acknowledged by all parties in writing.

Never sign a contract with blanks that have not been filled in. Unscrupulous contractors may fill in the blanks later with unacceptable terms.

Never pay a contractor for the entire project in advance or before the work is completed. California law requires that the amount of the down payment for any one improvement project, other than for construction of a swimming pool, may not exceed $1,000 or 10% of the contract price, excluding finance charges, whichever is less.

Be especially suspicious of door-to-door sales people who make unrealistically low estimates, refuse to leave a contract overnight, or try to sell their services by playing on your emotions.

Federal law requires a three-day “cooling off” period for unsolicited door-to-door sales of more than $25.00.

Source: California Department of Insurance.

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