Protecting Fire and Mudslide Survivors from Scammers

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Protecting Fire and Mudslide Survivors from Scammers

MONTECITO, Calif. - Many survivors of the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides have something else to worry about these days, con men, scammers, crooks or whatever you want to call them. They're out there right now, waiting to pounce. But, we have a basic checklist of things you should do to protect yourself.

The destruction is so widespread in Montecito and parts of Ventura County, it will be years before some people rebuild. However, others have already started the process of finding a good, honest licensed contractor. It can be a tricky and intimidating process.

"The first thing to do is check the license," said Amanda Berg with the California Contractor State License Board.

Berg says every contractor being considered should be checked using the state's website. Make sure the license is in good standing, look at the type of work they're licensed to do, whether they are bonded and get references with photos or video showing recent work they've done.

"I would definitely not hire somebody that maybe the neighbor says, 'Oh, I have a friend of a friend and he does this or that. Don't trust, just that. Make use of our website and check the license," said Berg.

Berg says signs are posted in the Ventura burn zone where hundreds of homes burned and they're going up in Montecito too, informing homeowners and warning scammers.

"We do have signs around stating that in a declared Natural Disaster Zone that it is a felony to contract without a license," said Berg.

The charges can be serious. If agents from the Contractors State License Board catch anybody doing anything illegal, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley says she will prosecute those cases to the fullest extent of the law.

A recent example, Dudley's office prosecuted the CEO of Green Building America in 2013. Penn Estes is serving nearly 12 years in prison for ripping off victims of the Tea and Jesusita Fires.

"Our District Attorney's office is all about vulnerable victims and people who've been through this fire, been through this debris flow are extremely vulnerable victims and I want to protect them," said Dudley.

Berg has more advice for survivors of the disaster, get at least three bids and never pay in advance.

"Don't do it! Don't pay upfront. The law is that as for a down payment, it's 10-percent down or $1,000 whichever is less. And the home improvement contract you do sign, there will be a payment plan with a schedule of work," said Berg.

However, as great as this advice is, the reality sets in and survivors can easily feel overwhelmed.

"They are in shock, that they're going to take the easy way out because they're so stressed they don't want to add anything else to the stress in their lives, but that is exactly the point they become most vulnerable. And if the deal looks too good, it is too good."

Here's a quick recap of our checklist. Check every contractor's license using the state website. Get at least three bids and look them over carefully. Get references and do not pay in advance. Finally, take your time and if you still have questions, pick up the phone and call the contractors state license board.

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