A disaster can bring out the best in people or the worst in people, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service expert. And if it’s the latter, people need to be aware of how some people may try to take advantage.

“The most common complaints following a disaster relate to price gouging and home repair contractors, but identity theft is also a concern,” said Dr. Joyce Cavanagh, AgriLife Extension family economics specialist in College Station.

Cavanagh said following past disasters, such as Hurricane Rita, the Texas Office of the Attorney General received numerous complaints of businesses charging excessive prices for essential goods and services such as rental cars, hotels and motels, building materials, and groceries.

“Anyone who feels he or she is a victim of price gouging following a disaster should report the incident to the consumer hotline at the Texas Office of the Attorney General,” she said. The number for the hotline is 800-252-8011, and their website is at http://www.oag.state.tx.us.

After a major disaster, contractors and others often go door-to-door soliciting home repair work, Cavanagh said. “While many of them are legitimate, others are not and the dishonest ones may take your money without completing the job or use inferior materials and perform shoddy work,” she said.

Cavanagh offered the following suggestions before hiring a contractor:

  • Get more than one estimate and don’t be forced to sign a contract right away. Ask the salesperson to leave a copy of the contract for you to review.
  • Get everything in writing, including cost, work to be done, time schedules, guarantees, payment schedule and other concerns.
  • Keep copies of everything you sign.

She added that any contract signed for work on a homestead must contain the following warning next to the space for your signature: “Important Notice: You and your contractor are responsible for meeting the terms and conditions of this contract. If you sign this contract and you fail to meet the terms and conditions of this contract, you may lose your legal ownership rights in your home. Know your rights and duties under the law.”

“When you sign a contract for home improvements on your homestead, a contractor can legally fix a lien on the homestead,” she said. “If you sign a contract containing the language quoted above, and you fail to make the payments, the contracting company can take away your home. So it’s imperative that you understand your obligations under the contract, and that you are confident you can meet those obligations. If you have doubts, consult an attorney before you sign.”

Cavanagh said people should also ask for a driver’s license and/or contractor’s license and write down those numbers, as well as the person’s address and a vehicle license plate number.

“Then contact the Better Business Bureau in the person’s home community or check online at http://www.bbb.org to determine whether there are any complaints,” she said. “Call your local Better Business Bureau office if you need assistance.”

She added that it is also important to ask for references and check them out, and never to sign a contract with blanks where unacceptable terms might be added later.

“Never pay a contractor in full or sign a completion certificate until the work is finished and acceptable. And beware of salespeople who say they need to be paid in full before the work is complete.”