FOLEY – With the height of hurricane season approaching, seniors and other South Baldwin residents should take care against fraudulent claims from people offering to repair storm damage.
Kristi Hagood, Baldwin County assistant district attorney, said home repair fraud, identity theft and other forms of deception are common problems in the area. Hagood’s office prosecutes fraud, elder abuse and white collar crimes.
She spoke with area residents at the Foley Senior Center during the center’s monthly morning discussion sessions.
She said that after hurricanes, property owners can become desperate trying to find someone to fix damage.
Hagood said her family experienced that problem after Hurricane Sally in 2020.
“I went through this same issue with my house, having damage to my house and who’s going to fix it,” she said. “You call people and they’ve got a long line of people ahead of you. By the time you get somebody willing to actually show up to your house and give an estimate, sometimes people do let their desperation, frustration take over.”
Hagood said some victims that have contacted her office wrote deposit checks for large amounts of money.
“Someone said I need a deposit so that I can buy your materials and then no materials show up and they don’t come back,” Hagood said. “Unfortunately I’ve seen quite a few of those cases.”
She said property owners should only deal with licensed and insured contractors. Residents can check with the Alabama Home Builders Licensure Board at www.hblb.state.al.us or 800-304-0853 to determine if a person is a licensed contractor.
Property owners should get estimates in writing saying what work will be done, when it will be done and what price will be charged. Any payments should be by check or credit card to provide a record of payment.
She said residents should be careful about people going door to door after hurricanes offering to do work. She said another reason for suspicion is when someone claims to be certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Don’t hire anyone who claims to be FEMA certified, because that does not exist,” she said. “They’re not FEMA certified contractors out there.”
She told audience members that they should ask to see the driver’s license and write down the name and vehicle license plate number any time someone comes on their property offering to do work after a storm.
Hagood said another good resource to use to check on contractors is the Better Business Bureau. She said investigators in her office also often check with the BBB to see if a particular business has received more complaints than usual.
She said everyone, particularly seniors, should take precautions against identity theft.
“We all have to be very careful about protecting our identity,” Hagood said. “It’s very important that we don’t share personal information with people we don’t know, especially people who contact us on the internet, that call us on the phone or send us text messages or maybe even places that claim to be our bank sending us an email that says you need to email us back with this information.”
“Your bank is not going to email. If you have business you need to transact at your bank, you need to go to your bank in person,” she added.
She said anyone paying bills by check should also take care to mail the items at the post office and not place the envelopes in their mailboxes in front of their house.
“Don’t even trust the blue box outside of your post office,” Hagood said. “Walk in because the crimes happen are people will steal it out of your mailbox, and then they’ll do one of two things.”
Thieves can steal checks and wash off the name and amount on the check and put a different recipient and number on the document. They can also copy the routing and account numbers and print their own checks using the victim’s account.
Hagood said that not everyone who uses someone’s financial identity is a stranger. Her office is prosecuting one case in which a relative copied the victim’s driver’s license, Social Security card and other information and used the data to take out loans.
“A woman was getting bills from different credit unions saying she was behind on her loan payments,” she said. “She was like what loan payments?”
Hagood said one precaution in such cases is to keep track of bank accounts and credit card statements. She said the woman saw the loan reports and contacted the loan agencies immediately. Because the deception was caught early, she was not held liable for the money.
She said another precaution is for people to freeze their credit. Anyone can contact the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, and have their credit frozen.
She said the credit will have to be unfrozen if someone wants to open a new account, but the action will keep unauthorized people from opening accounts.