Hurricane Ian victims are laser-focused on recovery, making some of them easy marks for scammers offering quick help. And scammers know that.
SARASOTA, Fla. – Kathryn Schweitzer worked recently in the yard in front of her small, yellow house in a North Port neighborhood where mildewing furniture, drywall and other personal belongings line the streets, the remains of destruction left behind by Hurricane Ian. Schweitzer tries to shrug off the $8,000 she’s paid so far “just to get the walls back” in her flood-damaged home, because “if you can’t cry, you get to laugh.” She had been putting repair costs on credit cards, but said she’s been approved for $20,000 in federal relief money.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, the aid won’t go far given the extent of damage and rising repair costs. What’s more, Schweitzer, her neighbors and a host of other Gulf Coast homeowners are now potential targets for unscrupulous contractors, fraud artists and scammers looking to cash in on people desperate to get their lives back on track and the billions of dollars in insurance money and government aid flowing in to Florida.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved more than $45.4 million in assistance to Sarasota County alone. Another $55.5 million is approved in Charlotte County and $11 million in Manatee. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation estimates the value of insured losses in the state from Hurricane Ian at $8.4 billion as of Nov. 2.
Chris Maki, a detective with the North Port Police Department for the past 18 years, knows what’s coming. Maki worked at the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office when Hurricane Charley made landfall there in 2004 and has been patrolling Schweitzer’s neighborhood, where four feet of water flooded destroyed what had taken some decades to build. He knows that the last thing these people need is to fall victim to hurricane related fraud.
“All their walls, all their drywall, all their belongings are more than likely right there out at the curb,” he said. “These people lost everything.”
Focused on recovery, vulnerable to fraud
Experts say that with so much work to be done on so many properties in the area, some people are likely to believe a stranger promising impossible timelines at impossible prices who will then disappear right after accepting payment.
Yet because of the lag time between when a homeowner pays money up front for work and when it becomes clear fraud has been committed, it could take up to five months before the wave of hurricane complaints reach police, Maki said.
Often, by that point, it’s too late to recover the stolen funds as many fraudsters will be long gone by the time police start their investigation.
Initially, potential victims are often assessing damage or gutting homes that need to be rebuilt.
Schweitzer house is surrounded by downed tree limbs. She has ripped out wet drywall and tossed her ruined possessions. She wore gardening gloves and carried a shovel, trying to dent a mountain of work to do before she had to be at her job at Cracker Barrel later that day.
It’s been more than a month since her shed “did a Mary Poppins and flew three doors down the street.”
“God knows how that happened, but that’s where I found it,” she said.
Right after the storm, Schweitzer said the neighborhood was flooded with people in work trucks soliciting work from her and her neighbors, offering help but often at exorbitant prices.
“I heard one neighbor paid $3,500 for somebody to tarp their roof,” she said.
The U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers offered tarping service for free to hurricane victims through a federal program called Operation Blue Roof.
Yet, the desperation in the neighborhood will likely grow in the coming weeks as this North Port neighborhood competes with the rest of Southwest Florida for available contractors to do the needed work.
Most people that spoke with a Herald-Tribune reporter last week were still in the process of mold remediation and had no clear timeframe on when their homes would be fully repaired.
Thomas Lynch, 83, said he won’t fall victim to any scam. The retired accountant has lived in his North Port home near McKibben Park for the past 18 years with Janet Lynch, his wife of 56 years. He is one of the few who had flood insurance in the neighborhood. Fourteen inches of water flooded their home. Despite having several layers of insurance, he’s still having a hard time getting his claim resolved.
“We ask them and we get no answers,” he said of the insurance companies.
Lynch said to safeguard against fraud, he knows not to sign away his policy’s benefits to a company and to only use a licensed contractor for repair work.
The Lynches said they don’t know when they’ll be able to move back into their home, but they have rented a place in Punta Gorda while rebuilding.
Jason Konte lives on the east side of North Port, said he’s worried about hurricane fraud. His roof sustained some damage, but to get a contractor to check it out, he said he would be required to assign the insurance benefits to them or have the money on hand to repair the damage before even getting an estimate.
“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “You do your homework and you still get screwed.”
Anna and Bill Kopfhamer have lived in their North Port home since 1996. Ever since Charley and the insurance headaches that resulted after that storm, Anna Kopfhamer has carried flood insurance on her property.
It turns out it was worth it when a foot of water flooded the home.
She feels confident she won’t fall victim to a scam, but isn’t so sure about all of her neighbors. Any contractor who comes by – and there have been several – she tells them they’re welcome to leave an estimate, but that she’s not going to be rushed to get the work done.
They’ve parked an RV in their front yard to give them the room to be patient on repairs and to find qualified contractors.
Yet some people in the neighborhood don’t have flood insurance and have yet to be approved for assistance from FEMA.
Courtney, a woman who declined to give her last name to a reporter, said she’s been to a FEMA disaster assistance center four times and has not been approved for help. She and her wife bought their property in March. They had insurance on the property required for their mortgage, but not flood insurance, as the property was not in a federally identified flood zone.
During the hurricane, flood waters came into their home, causing them to seek refuge on the kitchen island. They lost all their furniture and had to rip out the floors and drywall. But because Courtney doesn’t have insurance, she’s done the work herself, taking time from her job as a manager at a retail business to repair her property.
She turned to YouTube to learn how to hang drywall, she said.
“‘I’m trying to be back by Thanksgiving,” she said, then assessed how much still needs to be done. “By Christmas by the latest. You got to get your family home.”
Unlicensed contractors, unpermitted work
North Port officials have made it a priority to try to prevent the expected wave of fraud by putting two veteran detectives on a hurricane-fraud task force. Maki said he’s driven more than 150 miles a day for the past two weeks that the task force has actively been operating in the Sarasota County municipality.
Maki spends a good portion of his day responding to hurricane fraud related calls, but also driving around looking for potential problems, like unlicensed contractors or unpermitted work. Currently, the biggest issue he’s seeing is unpermitted work, which can lead to other problems relating to insurance coverage.
Josh Taylor, spokesman for the North Port Police Department, said permits allow the city to track contractors’ work from one project to the next. A contractor must be licensed in both the state of Florida and the city of North Port to do work inside city limits.
“At least there’s some recourse if they do substandard work,” he said of customers using a licensed contractor. “You know how to find them. They have a license on the line and that’s their whole livelihood. If they commit some type of fraud there’s the potential they could lose that license.”
He and Maki said that residents should only use licensed contractors to repair any structural damage to property. He also warned that any company doing repair work should not ask property owners to apply for the building permits.
“That’s a huge red flag,” he said.
North Port has several tips on avoiding scams on its website. City officials stressed the importance of not acting immediately.
“Scammers pressure you to provide information immediately, they want you to act before you have time to think,” the North Port website reads. “Stop and talk to someone you trust. Before you do anything else, tell someone – a friend, a family member, a neighbor – what happened. Talking about it could help you realize it’s a scam.”
Taylor said residents should ask for the license number of contractors before signing a contract or sending funds. A North Port resident can also check the city’s business tax registration database on the city’s website to see if a contractor is licensed to do work in North Port.
Derek Applegate, North Port’s building official, said the city’s building department was already on track for a record-breaking year in regard to number of permits issued.
“We were already on pace to out do what we did last year,” he said. “We did about 15,600 permits last year; we are going to crush that again this year.”
He said that licensed Florida contractors can register with the city at no cost, although it can take a couple days for that registration at this time as the city has a backlog.
Right now, permits for hurricane related damage are not flooding the North Port building department, he said.
But as with anticipated fraud cases, Applegate knows those are coming. Recently, he’s noticed an increase in calls to the building department with questions about how to apply for permits to repair the hurricane damage.
“The work is going to begin now for us,” he said.
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