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Scammers: Another kind of storm disaster

Natural disasters can bring out the best in people, volunteering, making donations, even risking lives to help others — but they can also bring out the worst in people.

State and local officials warn people to be on the lookout for scammers or “storm chasers” as the Better Business Bureau calls them, trying to prey on those hard hit by storms, or those trying to make donations for relief.

Ridgefield Police Capt. Tom Comstock said there have been no actual frauds related to Sandy reported as of Tuesday afternoon, but the department did receive a call about suspicious people who turned out to be actual CL&P employees.

Seeking aid

For those seeking aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has set up a website where Connecticut residents can apply for aid: DisasterAssistance.gov.

The agency covers only specific types of losses, and doesn’t cover things like second homes, or losses that are covered by insurance.

Hiring contractors

Hiring contractors can be tough without the immediacy of storm damage to deal with.

To do almost any type of home improvement in the Connecticut, contractors need to register with the state Department of Consumer Protection.

Even if a contractor has a state license number, its validity should be verified. A Ridgefield man was recently arrested on criminal charges, accused of using an expired license number. The DCP uses the license fees to fund the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund to re-imburse people who get burned by contractors.

If the contractor is not registered and there are any consumer protection claims filed, the homeowner would not have access to that fund.

To check that a home improvement worker has a valid license, visit elicense.ct.gov or call 1-800-842-2649 during business hours.

Here are some other tips from state consumer watchdogs and police for hiring contractors:

•    Obtain three bids or offers. Scammers who plan to do shoddy or unnecessary work, or no work at all will tend to be pushy.

•    Contact referrals from prior customers.

•    Get all offers in writing prior to signing a contract.

•    Keep a copy of the written contract, which contains the contractor’s registration number, allows a three-day right of cancellation, and includes beginning and end dates.

•    Verify that the contractor is registered. If the contractor is not registered and there are any claims filed, the homeowner would not have access to the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund.

•    Include in your contract that final payment is contingent on the issuance of a certificate of occupancy by your town building inspector.

Helping and giving

Sadly, even philanthropists need to be careful consumers, with fraudsters creating illegitimate charities to take advantage of people’s generosity. Sometimes charities that give little or nothing to the causes they claim to benefit aren’t even illegal if they file proper paperwork.

Here are some ways the Governor’s office recommends for helping out after Sandy:

•    Volunteer with the Red Cross by emailing ctvol@ctredcross.org with your phone number and email address.

•    Donate blood: The Red Cross reports a shortfall of more than 7,000 blood donations in the Northeast. More info: 1-800-RED-CROSS or RedCossBlood.org.

•    Donate to the United Way. The New York City United Way has set up a page on UnitedWayNYC.org to aid storm hit communities along the Eastern Seaboard.

The state also recommends using CharityNavigator.org charity rating agency, which has a Sandy page, to vet any charity you might consider supporting.

jkara@acorn-online.com

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