Hurricane season isn’t over and therefore neither is consumer scam season, which has gone into hyper mode following Irma’s destructive sweep through Florida.
Homeowners are particularly vulnerable to fast-talking, document-waving con artists who promise to help with repairs, insurance claims and Federal Emergency Management Agency payments.
“Hurricanes bring out a lot of good in people and also the worst in those few bad actors preying on homeowners whose most prized asset has been damaged,” said Jon Moore, spokesman for Florida’s Department of Financial Services. “We’re trying to educate and protect Floridians so they don’t fall victim to Irma for a second time.”
The state has dispatched three anti-fraud strike teams to investigate suspicious activity and alert residents on how to recognize red flags. They are taking complaints from homeowners, meeting with homeowners associations and partnering with local law enforcement.
“To say it frankly, Florida has been through enough and I won’t tolerate fraudsters attempting to take advantage at this high-stress time,” said Jimmy Patronis, the state’s chief financial officer.
The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation has recorded 703,671 claims for $4.6 billion in damage since Irma struck on Sept. 10. Patronis expects those numbers to keep rising.
He and consumer advocates are warning people to be “scam smart,” and aware that “if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Here’s some advice if your home or business was damaged:
▪ Notify your insurance company, first and foremost.
▪ Beware of imposters claiming to be FEMA representatives, asking for money to assist with the filing of federal flood claims.
“In Houston after Harvey they’ve had fake FEMA reps floating around and the best thing to do is decline and shut the door,” Moore said.
▪ Beware robocalls from imposters claiming to represent FEMA, asking consumers to hang up and dial a 1-800 number to make an insurance payment to prevent policy cancellations.
▪ Verify the identity of anyone who says they represent government or relief agencies or insurance companies. They should display their ID badges or provide ID. If you suspect that someone is impersonating official personnel, contact the police.
▪ Beware of fly-by-night repair companies or contractors and hire only licensed and reputable professionals. Contractors should not request that you pay more than half the cost at the outset.
“Watch out for a contractor who says, ‘Your insurance company sent me, I’m your adjuster, and if you pay $500 up front we’ll waive your deductible,’ ” Moore said.
▪ If you are considering the assistance of a public insurance adjuster, verify his or her license. Understand how much he or she charges and what services are included.
▪ Review all documentation you are asked to sign and ask questions. Ask who is responsible for paying — you or your insurance company.
▪ Ensure you understand all paperwork a contractor or roofer or water mitigation firm requests you to sign, most importantly assignment of benefits agreements.
Here’s where it gets sticky: The state and consumer advocates warn homeowners against signing assignment of benefits (AOB) agreements because the policyholder is signing over the administration of his or her claim to the contractor, who often inflates the claim and gouges the insurance company, which rejects the claim, which leads to a lawsuit by the contractor in the policyholder’s name. The practice has led to an increase in lawsuits and in insurance premiums.
“If you hear the words ‘I’ll take care of everything and it won’t cost you anything, just sign here,’ you must run the other way,” said Lisa Miller, Florida’s former deputy insurance commissioner and now a consultant in Tallahassee. “It’s a racket. They’ve created a factory for lawsuits. You are signing away all your rights and benefits. You lose control of your policy. If you want pink countertops, that’s not up to you. That’s up to the vendor.”
Miller advises policyholders not to fall for the pitch and to call their insurance agent or the state’s helpline. The state urges policyholders to file claims directly with their insurance company.
“People you know come to your back door, and people you don’t know come to your front door, especially after a hurricane,” she said. “Don’t answer that knock.”
“There is a lot of concern in the wake of Irma that the number of AOB lawsuits will spike,” said Ron Bartlett, spokesman for the Consumer Protection Coalition, which has been advocating AOB reform by state lawmakers.
“It’s a cottage industry in South Florida where these firms work with trial attorneys to solicit homeowners. They’ll take a small leak, exaggerate the scope of work and tell you that your entire kitchen needs to be ripped out before an insurance adjuster even has a chance to inspect it. The homeowner’s repairs never get finished because of the ensuing dispute and he finds out his insurer is being sued under his name without his consent.”
If you suspect fraud, report it by calling police or the state hotline: (800) 378-0445.
Insurance questions? Call the state Insurance Consumer Helpline: (877) 693-5236.
Consult the state Hurricane Irma Resources page, www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
Verify licenses at www.MyFloridaLicense.com.