Scam artists posing as home-repair experts have been advertising in Yellow Pages and other media for years, trying to make themselves appear legitimate. Some lowlifes don’t even bother to try.
In Falmouth last October, police arrested a man they say hired a subcontractor to do estimates on home repairs. After getting those estimates, the man would visit the homeowners and collect a deposit of several hundred dollars, then they’d never see the man again. The subcontractor, who had no idea what the man was up to, answered an ad on Craigslist.
“People think if these guys advertise, they’ve got to be legitimate. That’s not necessarily true,” John Holmes, manager of the EZ Fix program at Eastern Area Agency on Aging, says.
The program offers low-cost home repairs for seniors. In the seven years he’s managed it, Holmes has seen shady operators try to take advantage of trusting people.
Holmes says many consumers don’t ask enough questions, especially of people who go door to door offering fixes that may or may not be needed.
Many of his clients live alone and may have no one they feel they can turn to for advice. In some cases, Holmes told me, “they would hire the first person off the street who said, ‘something’s wrong with your house.’”
Under Maine law, door-to-door salespeople must be licensed. Always ask to see the license of anyone who knocks on your door offering to fix something.
Be doubly careful, because some disreputable contractors may break something, then try to convince you to pay them to repair it. They also may create a repair job as a way to get into your house and possibly steal from you, as was a case in Falmouth.
Other “red flags” to watch for include the following:
— Special deals, offered “today only”
— Pressure to sign a contract or begin work right away. A three-day “cooling off” period is mandated under Maine law.
— A demand of full payment up front, especially in cash. Jobs estimated at more than $3,000 must be done under contract, and no more than one-third of the total may be required as a deposit.
— A lack of personal identification, such as a permit.
— No business name on work vehicles and no indication of roots in a community.
Holmes advises people who need home repairs to ask for three references; call the people who have had work done and ask if they’re satisfied. Also, insist on seeing the contractor’s proof of insurance. Ask to see a sample contract, including clauses that deal with resolving disputes.
“Any reputable contractor is going to hand over all of this,” Holmes says, adding that all consumers should expect no less.
Sticking a magnetic sign on a vehicle doesn’t create a business; that takes a good reputation built on a solid work ethic and real results. If you notice suspicious people hawking cut-rate home “improvements,” notify your local police agency.
Maine’s Consumer Law Guide is available on the Maine Attorney General’s website, at maine.gov/ag. Chapter 17 deals with your rights when building or repairing your home. Chapter 13 covers your rights when a salesperson contacts you at home.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email email@example.com.