Friday, September 29, 2017

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Repair Rip-offs / A Second Assault

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Repair Rip-offs / A Second Assault: Thousands of people suffered property damage from the recent hurricanes, and the season isn't over yet. If you've been affected, af...

Repair Rip-offs / A Second Assault

Thousands of people suffered property damage from the recent hurricanes, and the season isn't over yet. If you've been affected, after you've ensured your family and friends are safe, it's understandable you want to make your life whole again as quickly as possible.

Just as every disaster brings stories of strangers unselfishly helping each other, disaster also brings out opportunists who take advantage of victims when they're most vulnerable. Here are some tips to consider as you recover from the storms:

Beware of contractors who go door-to-door soliciting your business, promising to do the needed repairs right away at too-good-to-be-true prices. Hiring someone on the spot can be tempting, especially when every legitimate contractor in town is inundated with calls.

Contact your insurance adjustor first to verify the scope of the damage and to determine what your policy will cover. One year, after a big hailstorm, a roofing company went door-to-door in our neighborhood offering to replace everyone's roof; some homeowners did not even have roof damage.

Research and referrals. Even though you may be anxious to get repairs underway, try to be patient. Shop around. Get estimates and references. Check out the company with the Better Business Bureau. Research online how long they've been in business, and how many complaints they've had.

Get everything in writing. Have the contractor spell out the work to be done, materials used, cost, timeline. While you might have to pay something up front to cover materials, resist making full payment until the job is complete and you're satisfied with the work.

Permits and inspections. If you live in an area where permits and inspections are required for the type of project you're doing, make sure those permits are obtained before work begins and inspection takes place before final payment is made. Ask to see the permit. The company that replaced our furnace charged $125 for a permit to install it. When my husband asked to see the permit, not only did they not have one, they didn't even know the process for obtaining one! Yet for years, they had been padding every customer's bill with a charge for a permit.

Beware when buying a used car. Massive flooding during hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria damaged hundreds of vehicles beyond repair. After the claims are settled, many will be sent to auto parts recyclers for dismantling, but others will be assigned salvage titles and shipped to dealer lots. While a reputable dealer will disclose a car's provenance, some unscrupulous sellers willingly pass flood-damaged vehicles to unsuspecting buyers.

Watch for telltale signs that the vehicle might have been underwater: a musty odor, covered up by strong air freshener; shorts in the instrument panel lights or other electronics; fog or moisture beads in the lights; mud or silt in the glove compartment or under the seat. Examine the title and ask for a complete CARFAX history. And, as with any used-car purchase, have the car inspected by a trusted mechanic before you agree to buy it.

What tips do you have to avoid getting ripped off after disaster strikes? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Don't Let Fake Charities Take Advantage of Your Co...

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Don't Let Fake Charities Take Advantage of Your Co...: My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I lived in Houston for 10 years, and I recognize a lot of the locations that flooded....

Don't Let Fake Charities Take Advantage of Your Compassion

My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I lived in Houston for 10 years, and I recognize a lot of the locations that flooded. Many people lost everything they own.

And as I write this post, Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc.

Fortunately whenever disaster strikes, others jump in to help. We open our checkbooks and donate to the organizations on the ground providing relief. Some of us even volunteer our labor. There are many wonderful organizations that offer life-saving assistance to people and animals affected by a disaster, and they could not do their good work without the generosity of donors and volunteers.

But just as the looters crawl out of their holes to take advantage of fellow human beings and businesses when they're down, fake charities and "disaster funds" pop up to part sympathetic donors from their money, with no intention of giving it to the intended recipients. Disasters seem to bring out the best, and unfortunately, the worst in people.

You want to help. But how do you ensure your hard-earned dollars and goods really go to the people who need them?

First of all, choose organizations you are familiar with, or research the charity on sites such as Guidestar, Charity Navigator, or the Better Business Bureau. Google the name of the organization for reported scams and complaints. Verify on the IRS website that your donation is tax deductible.

Many fake charities will come up with names that sound like real, respected charitable organizations. Be suspicious if the person asking for money uses high pressure tactics, dodges your questions, or refuses a site visit. Legitimate charities are happy to provide you with all the information you request.

When you do your research, pay attention to what percentage of contributions collected goes to fundraising, salaries, and administrative costs. If you're solicited by a paid fundraiser, ask how much of your donation that person, or the agency employing the fundraiser, will receive. I resent making a "donation" that pads the salary of someone who earns more than I do.

Avoid making a donation in cash, and never send a wire transfer. For tax and record-keeping purposes, it's best to write a check made out to the charitable organization (not to an individual!) or pay by credit card through the charity's secure website.

People who have lost everything need clothing, linens, diapers, toiletries, bottled water, food, pet supplies, etc., so you may choose to donate goods instead of money. Just make sure your donation is really wanted by checking the organization's website for its wish list. If you're far away from the disaster site, unless there's a clear infrastructure for transporting and distributing donations-in-kind to the victims, it might be more effective for you to make a monetary donation. Then the charity can purchase the needed items locally from a vendor who can use the business. I'm still haunted by photos showing trash piles of goods donated to disaster victims in Haiti, going to waste while the Haitians continued to suffer.

You may be tempted to rush to the devastated location and volunteer your services. Again, check with the relief organization coordinating the response to see what skills are needed and wait to be deployed. Having too many inexperienced volunteers descend on a disaster site can strain resources and divert first responders from tending to the original victims.

During a high-profile event like 9/11 or a major hurricane, even the legitimate charities may receive more donations than they need to handle that particular disaster. When this happens, the excess contributions may be funneled to other programs or placed in reserve to help with future disasters. So be aware that your donation may not be used exactly how you thought it would be. But if you've sent it to a legitimate, efficient charity, you can rest assured it will go to aid someone in need.

What charities do you believe do the best job with disaster response? I'd love to hear your comments.