Chasing the storm scammers: Permitting system considered
When a strong wind takes down trees and damages roofs, it also blows in people looking to take advantage of those in crisis. John Bowen, emergency management director, and Lt. Scott Goddard of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office said with each ...
When a strong wind takes down trees and damages roofs, it also blows in people looking to take advantage of those in crisis.
John Bowen, emergency management director, and Lt. Scott Goddard of the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office said with each blowdown event in recent years, a number of reports indicate people have lost money when dealing with those claiming they will assist with cleanup but then disappear. They discussed the issue at Tuesday's county board committee of the whole meeting.
"The biggest problem that we see over and over is taking advantage of that people in extreme crisis," Goddard said. "They've just lost their home, or they can't get into their driveway. It seems that some contractors almost play off that fear."
Goddard said the worst situation he could remember from last July's supercell thunderstorm was when a homeowner was charged $3,000 per tree for the removal of nine trees, and the work was not completed. The issue was a point of discussion at the final debrief of response to that storm, Goddard said. A suggestion for addressing the issue was to develop a permitting system in Crow Wing County. Such a system could identify reputable tree services and contractors, offering another tool for both consumers and law enforcement in those situations, Goddard said.
"If we had a permitting system, I think it would be an advantage for us and also an advantage for those honest, hardworking contractors that are coming in," Goddard said. "We're looking at year after year where we have these storms and these companies come in. Some are completely legitimate, they bring in a half-million dollars worth of equipment, trucks and big tractors. And then you've got the fly-by-nighters who play off people's fears."
--- --- ---
Learn whether a business is reputable
- Minnesota Department of Commerce consumer information-Visit https://mn.gov/commerce/consumers/ or call 651-539-1600 for information on home and vehicle insurance, tips on avoiding financial scams and to file a complaint or make a general inquiry about a business or industry.
- Minnesota Secretary of State-Visit www.sos.state.mn.us and click "Find a Business" for those officially filed with the state. Or call 1-877-551-6767 or business information.
- Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota-Visit www.bbb.org/minnesota/get-consumer-help/ or call 1-800-646-6222 for free reports of BBB-accredited and non-accredited businesses, to file a complaint or to read and submit customer reviews. The BBB also maintains a scam tracker-available at https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker/minnesota/ -which tracks scams reported to the business by location.
--- --- ---
Goddard suggested the system could be mandatory or voluntary and other elements of a permitting system could be developed if county commissioners said it was something they'd like him to pursue.
Commissioner Paul Koering wondered how the county would manage a new permitting system. He said in the same way people should be expected to be aware when severe weather is coming, they also should be responsible in making consumer decisions.
"It comes down to personal responsibility," Koering said. "We can't be Mother Hen, watching over everybody to say, 'Oh, you're getting overcharged.'"
Goddard said he agreed with the commissioner, but from a law enforcement perspective, it was difficult to track down illegitimate businesses after the fact.
"The problem we have ... is trying to chase down a receipt book that you can buy at Wal-Mart that has no information and that shows that they paid X amount down," Goddard said.
Commissioner Franzen said if people did not get a permit through the voluntary system, then law enforcement is "right back to chasing down those people."
"I just don't know how we do it," Koering said. "I don't like these shysters, but I don't know how you can prevent all of it that is happening."
Goddard said he didn't know whether they could but it could increase awareness for the public.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said if he were to be interested in implementing permitting, it would only be on a voluntary basis. He noted one issue might arise from local well-known contractors and tree companies, the owners of which might rebuff at the idea of having to acquire a permit.
"He doesn't want to pay $100, because he knows he's got people who are going to call him," Thiede said.
"I think it would be a very short list, then," Franzen said.
Thiede added he knew of people receiving phone calls for roof estimates who were not even within storm-damaged areas.
"For some of these older people who can't get up to their roof, that's a big problem," Thiede said. "But again I come down on the same side, you can't legislate against stupidity. Some people will just write out their check and then worry about where their check is going after that."
County Administrator Tim Houle said this was a good opportunity to remind people of best practices when dealing with contractors.
"Any time you get a quote from a contractor who asks for half down before any work or any materials is done, you should not do that," Houle said. "Half down when the materials are delivered would be fine, half down when they finish the job would be fine. Most reputable contractors will bill you for the service after it is completed."
Bowen noted there are several organizations people can contact to assure a business they're dealing with is reputable. Those include the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which maintains a consumer information area on its website; the Minnesota Secretary of State, which maintains a database of licensed businesses in the state; and the Better Business Bureau, which accredits businesses in local communities.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .