(FREEHOLD) Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni today announced the launch of a county-wide task force to help Hurricane Sandy victims who fall prey to unscrupulous contractors, con artists and other storm opportunists.
Beginning today, the Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force will be available to assist homeowners with complaints arising from fraudulent reconstruction and home repair, charitable contribution or cyber-scams and other consumer-related problems.
“As people work towards rebuilding their lives, some will see this as an opportunity to defraud or engage in improper or negligent business practices. By establishing this Task Force, we can streamline citizens’ complaint process and provide a single, fully-integrated entity to ensure prompt resolution of their complaint, while simultaneously educating the public about such risks and pitfalls in rebuilding,” said Acting Prosecutor Gramiccioni.
“This effort in Monmouth County is part of my office’s Sandy Fraud Working Group,” said Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa. “The importance of a centralized, statewide approach cannot be overstated, as scam artists are not likely to limit their actions to one county. Governor Christie has made it a top priority to protect New Jerseyans from those who would seek to profit from the misery of disaster victims. This county task force, acting in cooperation with our statewide working group, will ensure our efforts are focused as effectively as possible.”
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, countless Monmouth County residents are turning to home improvement contractors (HICs) to repair and rebuild their storm-damaged properties as insurance checks and related funding becomes available. Unfortunately, these conditions create the perfect environment for an influx of fraudulent, dishonest or negligent HICs and other scam artists looking to take advantage of those desperate to re-establish their lives in the wake of the catastrophe.
More than 254,000 applications have been filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) statewide, with over $348 million in assistance provided to help get New Jersey residents’ lives back on track.
In Monmouth County, where communities were devastated by Superstorm Sandy from the Bayshore region to the Manasquan Inlet out to Allentown and in between: More than 32,000 residents and business owners in Monmouth County have registered with the FEMA, which has provided just under $70 million in assistance to help county residents.
The Task Force will be coordinated with the Office of Attorney General Divisions of Criminal Justice and Consumer Affairs, and is designed to tackle the expected invasion of flyby- night contractors, salespeople and others looking to prey on Monmouth residents and profit from this disaster. The County Task Force will work cooperatively with a Working Group established by the Attorney General’s Office to collect and track complaint data received from affected counties across the State.
The Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force mission is two-fold:
Provide affected county residents with materials and information to help them avoid becoming victims of unscrupulous HICs or con-artists; and
Provide county residents victimized by unscrupulous contractors with a single integrated entity to receive and assess complaints, coordinate a subsequent investigation, and to obtain relief or resolution for the aggrieved homeowner or citizen.
Key to accomplishing these goals is the partnership among governmental agencies that may have a jurisdictional role in handling the complaints anticipated to arise from this disaster. The Task Force will be staffed by prosecutors, law enforcement officers and regulatory officials from a number of County and federal agencies, including the County Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Division on Aging, Disabilities and Veterans’ Services, the Division of Weights & Measures, Department of Parks and Recreation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service.
“The County is fully committed to protecting our citizens, and every aspect of County government is aligned to accomplish our goals with the help of our local, state and federal partners. We will have the welcome mat out at our doorsteps for any legitimate contractor looking to do work here but this is fair warning to anyone with the wrong idea – Monmouth County is not a place for scam artists and con-men to do business,” said Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas Arnone.
The Task Force will serve as a clearing house that meets regularly to review complaints lodged by citizens and homeowners. By establishing one county-wide Task Force to handle resolution of these complaints, it helps eliminate duplicative efforts undertaken by a number of State and County agencies.
“The devastation of Superstorm Sandy puts residents in a uniquely vulnerable situation. The County Division of Consumer Affairs has always focused on protecting our citizens and we will continue to provide those protections. But anyone who is thinking about attempting to take advantage of our citizens should think twice before heading down that path,” said Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry.
The Task Force will also help identify “target” HICs and merchants repeatedly engaging in illegal or improper business practices. The overarching goal is to streamline the complaint process for affected Monmouth County citizens, and to provide “one-stop shopping” for wronged homeowners.
“Superstorm Sandy inflicted more than our share of damage on our communities. We will not allow our citizens to become victimized a second time by predator contractors, salespeople or anyone else who thinks they are going to walk into Monmouth County and take advantage of this situation,” said Acting Prosecutor Gramiccioni.
“The Task Force will take an aggressive approach to dealing with suspected fraud cases related to rebuilding efforts that are moving into full swing as insurance checks arrive in homeowners’ mailboxes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency continues to issue monetary relief meant to ease the burden of Sandy’s victims, not line the pockets of dishonest people posing as legitimate, hard-working contractors,” added Acting Prosecutor Gramiccioni.
Homeowners or citizens can report complaints via the following:
The Task Force webpage at www.SandyFraud.com or call the Task Force hotline at (855) SANDY 39.
Visit the Task Force Command Center, located in the Bayshore Activity Center at Bayshore Waterfront Park, 719 Port Monmouth Road, in the Port Monmouth, New Jersey. Command Center hours are Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Task Force coordinator is Assistant Prosecutor Andrew S. Fried of the Office’s Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Bureau.
Citizens with complaints can complete, in writing or electronically, a Complaint Intake Form that describes the issue or problem experienced, along with the necessary documentation to support the claim (e.g., contract, checks paid, receipts, invoices, pictures, email communication). Task Force members will initially assess whether the case involves criminal activity and, if so concluded, the Prosecutor’s Office will open a criminal investigation. Those cases not deemed criminal will be pursued and resolved by the Task Force through administrative, regulatory and/or civil means. Those who try to exploit citizens who only seek to rebuild their lives after Sandy will be publicly identified and punished – criminally or civilly – to the fullest extent of the law.
To accomplish the Task Force’s objectives, a strong and aggressive public awareness campaign is necessary. Media coverage and publication is vital to ensure that the affected communities are aware of the Task Force’s ability to assist. Members of the Task Force will work proactively with municipal governments and media outlets to help educate the public about the Task Force, and be available to publish informative articles, and participate in panel discussions and call-in shows in an effort to help aggrieved citizens.
“The initial shock wave from Superstorm Sandy is still fresh in our minds, but as the rebuilding process kicks into full gear it is important to stay alert and remain vigilant to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of fraud,” said Acting Prosecutor Gramiccioni.
Acting Prosecutor Gramiccioni urges everyone to keep in mind the following list of “red flag” situations when dealing with a Home Improvement Contractors:
Do not do business with a contractor who does not have a New Jersey Home Improvement Contractor Number (NJHIC#). Home Improvement Contractors are required to register with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and obtain an NJCIC#.
• Do not do business with a contractor who shows up uninvited to offer you a “special deal” or “hurricane discount.” Remember the old adage: “If it seems to good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”
• 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.
All County residents who suspect they might be a victim of criminal activity, civil fraud or improper business practices in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy are urged to contact the
Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force online at SandyFraud.com or call at 855-SANDY39.