Scam artists crawl out after storms, past victims warn

Associated Press
Published September 3, 2005

WEST PALM BEACH - Once the immediate effects of Hurricane Katrina have subsided, the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi will have to deal with another plague - scam artists.

After four hurricanes pummeled Florida last year, many residents trying to get their lives back to normal suffered a second blow from supposed contractors who walked off with their money and left their homes in even worse shape. Other workers would illegally multiply their fees for needed services and supplies. One company tried to charge Orange County residents as much as $30,000 for tree removal.

Nearly 9,000 Florida residents filed complaints with Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist after last year's four hurricanes. Residents complained of contractors walking off with their money, or starting repairs to a roof that only made it more vulnerable to torrential rains. They complained of price gouging at gas stations, hotels, tree removal companies and other businesses."Whenever you have a storm the magnitude of Katrina, you have to be watchful of someone who might want to take advantage of the situation," Crist said. "People always need to utilize common sense."

Crist and other officials warned residents to be wary of workers who charge too much or too little. Some businesses may illegally inflate prices; others may charge less because they have no plans to complete the work after receiving a hefty down payment.

Palm Beach County sheriff's investigator Miguel Corzo received 150 complaints from residents after the hurricanes. He said many are overwhelmed with the cost of repairs and are too quick to pick someone who's offering the cheapest price. He says a licensed, reputable contractor has added costs, such as workers' compensation insurance, in his estimates.