Wildfire Victims: Beware Of Unlicensed Contractors And Scams

Since October 2017, several California communities have been devastated by historic wildfires and mudslides/debris flows. These disasters were responsible for the deaths of at least 88 people and for destroying more than 10,800 structures, many of them homes.  The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) and other State and local agencies are working hard to help protect disaster survivors looking to rebuild their homes and businesses. CSLB has undertaken the largest post-disaster outreach and enforcement effort in its almost 90-year history.

That outreach effort has included walking through fire-ravaged neighborhoods, meeting with survivors, posting warning signs about unlicensed contracting throughout the various fire zones, staffing assistance centers set up for survivors, conducting and participating in rebuilding workshops, conducting press events, and other forms of media outreach.

”It’s clear that unlicensed contractors are itching for work, and what better way to find customers than going to an area where people are looking to rebuild,” said CSLB Registrar David Fogt. “Disaster survivors can avoid the risks of hiring an unlicensed contractor by asking to see their license number and checking the license status using CSLB’s Instant License Check.  Property owners can also use CSLB’s Find My Licensed Contractor feature to download and/or print a list of qualified licensed contractors in their area.”

In California, a state contractor license is required for any home improvement project valued over $500 in labor and/or materials. Those caught contracting without a license in a declared disaster area can be charged with a felony, which carries a potential penalty of up to three years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

To protect disaster survivors from hiring unscrupulous contractors, CSLB partners with local law enforcement, district attorney’s offices, and the California Department of Insurance, to catch unlicensed contractors in the act during sweep and undercover sting operations. Sweeps are conducted on a regular basis in fire zones. Undercover sting operations in the disaster areas have already resulted in more than one dozen arrests and the filing of felony charges against suspected unlicensed contractors. These types of enforcement operations will continue.

CSLB and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have several important tips to help consumers make informed decisions when hiring a contractor and to avoid getting scammed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a disaster survivor or not.

CSLB’s Tips to Make Sure Your Contractor Measures Up:

  • Hire only state-licensed contractors. The six or seven-digit license number should be displayed in all advertisements, including business cards;
  • Check a contractor’s license number online at cslb.ca.gov or by calling 800.321.CSLB(2752); or create a personalized list of licensed contractors in your area using the Find My Licensed Contractor website feature;
  • Get three references from each bidder and review all past work in person;
  • Make sure all project expectations are in writing and only sign the contract if you completely understand the terms;
  • Confirm that the contractor has workers’ compensation insurance for employees;
  • Avoid paying more that 10% down or $1,000, whichever is less. Avoid paying in cash;
  • Avoid letting payments get ahead of the work;
  • Keep a job file of all papers relating to your project, including all payments;
  • Avoid making the final payment until you’re satisfied with the job;
  • In most cases, in a disaster area you have up to seven business days to cancel your contract without penalty.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website also has tips to alert consumers about common and fraudulent post-disaster activities often used by scammers. They include:

  • Avoid scam artists who promise a disaster grant and ask for cash deposits or advance payments in full.
  • Know that federal workers do not solicit or accept money. FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) staff never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications. Do not give out information. Report people claiming to be government workers to local police.
  • Beware of phony housing inspectors claiming to represent FEMA or SBA. An applicant should always ask to see the inspector’s identification badge. All federal employees and contractors carry official, laminated photo identification. It is important to note that FEMA housing inspectors verify damage, but do not hire or endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs. They do not determine your eligibility for assistance.
  • Disaster aid solicitations may arrive by phone, email, letter or face-to-face visits. Verify legitimate solicitation by asking for the charity’s exact name, street address, phone number, and Web address. Then call the charity directly and confirm that the person asking for funds is an employee or volunteer.
  • Only provide your Social Security number and banking information when registering for FEMA assistance, either by calling 800-621-3362, TTY 800-462-7585, or going online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or the smart phone FEMA App. If you use 711-Relay or Video Relay Services, call 800-621-3362. Operators are multilingual and calls are answered from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

CSLB offers an array of online resources and coordinates and participates in consumer outreach events across the state. For more information, visit CSLB online at www.cslb.ca.gov, or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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