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Siren-chasers: Avoid the help you don't ask for

After a wreck, a fire or a storm, watch out for unsolicited offers of help. Let your insurance company earn its money instead.

By QuinStreet Jul 18, 2014 12:06PM
This post comes from Susan Ladika at partner site Insurance.com.

Insurance.com on MSN MoneySay you've been in a wreck. Or your home has been damaged by a storm. Or your kitchen has gone up in flames.


You're shaken and dazed.


Ambulance with lights flashing © PBNJ Productions/Corbis
That's when the siren chasers strike -- trying to sign you up for services you don't need or can ill afford. If you fall prey to their scams, you could be on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars and might even lose your home.


I witnessed siren-chasing firsthand when my neighbor accidentally started a kitchen fire. Within minutes of the fire trucks pulling away after extinguishing the blaze, two fire restoration companies showed up at her home, trying to get her to hire them to make the repairs.


She sent them both packing and called her homeowners insurance company instead.


That decision drew praise from National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) spokesman Frank Scafidi, quoting the NICB mantra: "If you didn't request it, reject it."


"They're trying to take advantage of your emotions," Scafidi says.


They also are trying to take advantage of your wallet.


Don't play tow-truck roulette

After a wreck, a tow truck driver you never called might suddenly appear and try to tow your car from the scene.


"Once they take your car away," Scafidi says, "the costs could be in the thousands" to get your vehicle back.


While tows arranged through an insurer, a service like AAA or a responding police offer are typically priced according to set schedules, rogue operators don't have to play by those rules in many areas.


If your car is blocking traffic, the law enforcement officer at the scene may call a tow truck to move it out of the way, says Scafidi, who used to work for the Los Angeles Police Department. The department had a list of preferred towing companies it used that worked for the department for a set fee.


Otherwise, you should call your insurance company, AAA or a company you've used before rather than hire a random tow truck driver who appears on the scene, he says.


These tow truck drivers and restoration companies may monitor police scanners and respond after a call goes out, or the drivers could be roaming local highways, looking for an accident.


Ding dong: Trouble calling

Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute, says if your home is damaged in a disaster or by an accident, it's not unusual to have unscrupulous companies show up at your door. They say they'll handle your insurance claim, serving as an intermediary between you and the insurance company.


If you sign their contract, don't be surprised to be charged more than your insurance company will pay, McChristian warns. If you don't pony up the difference, the repair company could put a lien on your home.


Rather than signing on the dotted line if a rogue company shows up at your home, your first step should be to call your homeowners insurance company for assistance, McChristian says.


The insurance company will typically have a list of approved vendors that can make the repairs.


"Let your insurance company earn its keep," says Insurance.com managing editor Des Toups. "Contractors and restoration firms have a stake in building a continuing relationship with them. Pressure from a big insurance company to make things right can be very effective."


If you hire an unscrupulous company to do the work, the company might do more than your homeowners insurance company deems necessary, so the work isn't covered by insurance, or classify repairs incorrectly so they don't correspond with your policy and your insurance company might not honor the claim, Scafidi says.


Have a plan before the disaster

The problem with siren chasers is particularly acute after a major disaster, such as a hurricane or tornado, where whole blocks have been damaged or destroyed. (See "It's disaster season. Is your home ready?")


In a situation such as a hurricane, insurance companies will send swarms of adjusters so they'll be stationed near the area before the storm, McChristian says. If the disaster is unexpected, such as an earthquake or tornado, insurers will send adjusters to the scene as soon as possible. When law enforcement gives the all-clear, the adjusters will fan out through the area to help their customers.


Insurance companies try to handle disaster claims quickly, she says. Because they are handing out payment for repairs, "the money attracts unscrupulous people."


If you decide to hire your own contractor, you need to make sure they're properly vetted.


To help customers avoid being taken for a ride, Allstate passes out brochures at its mobile claims centers when responding to disasters.


Their recommendations include:

  • Be wary of contractors who solicit door to door. Instead work only with established contractors.
  • Make sure the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured and can document that.
  • Check their references.
  • Check your local Better Business Bureau to see if complaints have been filed against contractors you're considering.
  • Don't pay upfront or pay in full.

Because you never know when you might be faced with an accident or disaster, so "people need to develop their fraud radar," McChristian says.


More from Insurance.com


10Comments
Jul 18, 2014 4:43PM
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I had this happen to an uncle of mine last year. The firefighters were STILL on the property while two different siren chasers drove up trying to sell him services. One saleswoman actually had to bring an interpreter because she could not speak English

Luckily another relative works for Farmers Ins. and told him pretty much what this article states.

NEVER accept services or sign anything before you talk to your insurance company.

Jul 18, 2014 5:04PM
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More commonly known as 'Ambulance Chasers'.

Jul 18, 2014 5:35PM
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When we have a hurricane or tornado anywhere near the area, all kinds of jack-legs show up trying to get roofing, etc., jobs.

How do I know they are jack-legs?  Because they showed up!

If they were any good at it they could make an honest living where they are from.

So if they left to go 'where the work is', it meant they sucked so bad no one would hire them at home.

Period.

Jul 18, 2014 7:46PM
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Did anyone else feel like this article sounded like one of those Allstate Mayhem commercials?
Jul 18, 2014 9:05PM
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They are counting on P.T. Barnum's line:  "There's a sucker born every minute."
Jul 19, 2014 5:59PM
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Here in S/E Florida - victims injured, in say, motor vehicle accidents usually results in a medical evacuation "HELICOPTER"  showing up to transport the injured to the closest hospital's ER -- even if the hospital ER is but a short distance away.
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