Unscrupulous contractors are being targeted with the creation of the Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force.

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

The Task Force, is headed up by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, and will assist homeowners with complaints from fraudulent construction and home repair contractors, phony charities, cyber scams, and other consumer related issues as well as educate the public on how to avoid scammers looking to take advantage of the public post-Sandy.

“The goal is to give consumers and homeowners a single integrated agency to deal with rather than having to call a half dozen different governmental agencies. Deal with use, we’ll deal with all the communication from here on out,” says Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccione.

Prosecutor Gramiccione was joined Wednesday in Prosecutor Office headquarters in Freehold along with members of the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, County Sheriff Shaun Golden, and representatives from other partner agencies to announce the creation of the task force.

“All of these government agencies are working in unison with us on a collaborative effort. That leverage is going to squeeze those contractors that try and do this [fraud] in my county,” says Gramiccione.

The Task Force was formed to get leverage on any would-be scammers, especially as more relief money comes in and homeowners race to get necessary repairs done as quickly as possible.

“Historically in other hurricanes that ravaged the southeast coast, it’s usually three to six months before you start seeing fraud complaints rear their ugly head,” says Gramiccione.

Homeowners or citizens can report complaints via their website, via their dedicated hotline 855-SANDY-39, or in person at their Command Center located in the Bayshore Activity Center at Bayshore Waterfront Park.

In addition to local agencies and government entities Gramiccione stresses the cooperation of state and federal authorities as well. Officials from the Department of Consumer Affairs, The Division on Aging, Disabilities and Veterans Services, the Division of Weights and Measures, Department of Parks and Recreation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service will also staff the Task Force.

Gramiccione explains the vast swath of officials from different government organizations will be necessary, especially because historically only between fifteen and twenty percent of cases will be criminal investigations. The remainder are usually consumer and regulatory matters says the prosecutor.

Gramiccione says the Director of New Jersey Consumer Affairs, Eric Kanefsky informed him that statewide, there were roughly seventy five thousand calls or complaints since the storm hit.

County or statewide there were no official figures given on conviction of consumer fraud relating to Superstorm Sandy, however Gramiccione explains he spoke with law enforcement officials in other coastal areas. He believes people being pressured to sign unscrupulous contracts will be their biggest complaint.  “People being pressured to provide money, to sign on the dotted line. Instances of ‘You need to sign right now I’ll give you a Hurricane Discount or a special Deal’.”

He says fake charities that prey on people’s emotions and sympathy as well as contractors abandoning jobs or taking an egregiously long time to complete projects is also something they are looking out for.

The prosecutor’s office warns residents to keep in mind the following “red flag” situations when dealing with Home Improvement Contractors.

• Do not do business with a contractor who does not have a New Jersey Home Improvement Contractor Number (NJHIC#).

• Do not do business with a contractor who shows up uninvited to offer you a “special deal” or “hurricane discount.”

• Do not do business with a contractor who refuses to give you a written estimate.

• Do not do business with a contractor who refuses to give you a written contract. Under state law, home improvement contractors are required to provide a written contract for any project costing $500 or more, but the Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force recommends obtaining a written contract for all projects.

• Do not do business with a contractor who cannot provide you with verifiable HIC commercial general liability insurance in the amount of $500,000 per occurrence, as required by law.

• Do not do business with a contractor who asks for full payment up front. It is recommended instead that you pay a certain amount in advance with subsequent payments tied to stages of work completion.

• Do not do business with a contractor who demands cash. If you must pay in cash, insist on a dated receipt, signed by the contractor, reflecting the amount paid and the purpose of the payment.

• Do not do business with a contractor who offers to inflate your claim in order to save you the cost of your deductible. This is insurance fraud and it is illegal.

• Do not do business with a contractor who asks you to sign paperwork saying you will be responsible for the cost of labor/materials if the contractor fails to pay.