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Need storm cleanup? Beware of scams, and check contractors for license, insurance

A flag flies at the gate to storm-wrecked property off Alabama 51 in Beauregard, Ala., where a tornado hit March 3.
A flag flies at the gate to storm-wrecked property off Alabama 51 in Beauregard, Ala., where a tornado hit March 3. tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

Logging would be among many occupations unsuited to guys like me.

That’s because we’re accident-prone. We can cut ourselves on anything, hit our heads on everything, slip on any slick spot. We are not to be trusted with chainsaws and falling timber.

I was reminded of this Friday, when authorities in Lee County, Ala., held a news conference to warn people with tornado damage from the March 3 storm outbreak to watch out for cleanup scams, such as unlicensed contractors looking to clean up residents’ insurance money and spit town instead of wood.

Did you know that if you hire a contractor who has no liability insurance, and his workers are injured on your property, you can be the one who’s liable?

You’d think they’d sue the unscrupulous contractor, but probably not. Being unscrupulous, he’s probably going to split town while they’re in the hospital.

So, make sure a contractor has insurance, before you hire one.

Cleanup scams

That was among the tips given Friday by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, Alabama Homebuilders Licensure Board Executive Director Chip Carden, Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes and Sheriff Jay Jones, along with other area officials.

Folks need to keep their guard up for “unscrupulous people with nefarious ideas,” said Hughes, warning the unscrupulous “they need to stay out.”

Jones said his officers would be on the lookout for any contractor con artists in the storm-damaged areas, some of which still were under restricted access: “We will be watching. We will be wary.”

Marshall said anyone needing to report suspicious characters may call his office at 1-800-392-5658 or go online to www.ago.alabama.gov.

Carden said those needing a contractor for storm cleanup should be wary of these warning signs:

The contractor asks the property owner to get the work permit from the county.

The contractor has no references, no previous customers who’ll vouch for his work.

The contractor has no fixed address or business phone, only a post office box or pager number.

The contractor asks to be paid up front. (If supplies are needed, get them yourself. Don’t pay cash right off.)

Carden said every contractor who is licensed can document that by showing a credit-card-sized “Certificate of License” with a name, address, file number and effective date.

A resident can check a contractor’s status on the license board website, hblb.alabama.gov, or call 800-304-0853.

Hughes warned property owners also to watch out for inflated damage estimates.

The license board recommends getting three estimates before agreeing on a contract, making sure each bid is based on a matching set of specifications.

The work should have a designated beginning and end date. Any financing with a payment schedule also should be agreed upon in writing

Ask for a contract that authorizes you to withhold final payment until you are satisfied with the work.

Property owners wanting recommendations may contact a state or local Home Builders Association, or check a contractor’s background through the local Better Business Bureau. The Better Business Bureau can be reached at 800-824-5274, or www.bbb.org. The Home Builders Association of Alabama can be reached at 800-745-4222 or www.hbaa.org.

And as noted earlier, no resident clearing storm damage should forget to make absolutely sure the contractor has proof of liability insurance, because clearing fallen timber and collecting building debris can be risky work.

It is unsuited to the accident-prone, and you don’t know who might get hired during this surge in demand for labor.

Those experienced in dealing with disasters say two waves of injury occur: first, one from the disaster itself, and then another from accidents occurring during cleanup.

Those already hurt by the storms should not be injured again, or held responsible for someone else’s misfortune.

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