You would think that home and sewer repair scams would eventually fade away -- that instant communication and the speed of information would scare these charlatans off of our front porches.
Bad news: the scammers keep on coming. Because fraudsters target the people least likely to turn them away, like the elderly and the infirm, they keep running the same old shakedown schemes that can cost the most vulnerable members of our communities tens of thousands of dollars in bogus repairs.
Here's everything you need to know about home repair scammers.
Who are the home repair scammers?
The AARP notes that home improvement scam artists can include “travelers,” which are crews that hit unsuspecting targets for repair work, charge exorbitant upfront fees and then disappear. They can also include “woodchucks,” who introduce themselves to victims as tree-trimmers and then push the scam from there.
“(They) specifically look for older folks — homes with wheelchair ramps, handicap placards on cars, lawn figurines and unkempt yards," Police Officer Ryan Young told AARP.com. "It's not hard to quickly recognize someone with diminished capacity."
Common home repair scamming techniques can include:
- Contractors who appear out of nowhere with “leftover” materials from a nearby job that they’re willing to sell at a dirt-cheap price;
- Contractors who randomly notice major issues that somehow escaped the attention of the homeowner;
- Contractors who want full payment for a job up front or, even more suspiciously, in cash;
- Contractors who have lots of excuses about the reasons why they don’t have, or don’t need, certain tools, permits or licenses.
There are several more ways to spot a scammer -- be on your toes any time someone approaches you about unsolicited home repairs.
Money down the drain: Avoiding common sewer repair scams
A broken, damaged or clogged sewer line can be a real mess. Most of us aren’t plumbing experts and have a hard time diagnosing what’s wrong, much less putting a price tag on the appropriate repairs.
Unfortunately, some shady dealers use a sewer line service call as an opportunity to sell you a bill of goods. If you don’t know some of the telltale signs of suspicious behavior, you may find yourself up scam creek without a paddle.
5 signs of a sewer scam
- Catastrophe strikes. A plumber comes to complete what appears to be a fairly simple sewer line clearance and then -- uh oh, there’s some trouble and you need a full replacement. When disaster strikes seemingly out of nowhere, talk to another professional before agreeing to any additional, major work.
- An over-the-top estimate. Some sewer repairs can be quite expensive, but if you see the bill climbing into five-digit territory, it’s time for a second opinion. Even the biggest sewer line replacement job for a family home shouldn’t cost more than $5,000 to $8,000 without extenuating circumstances. Fluctuations in cost can come from a difference in the length and depth of the line as well as other obstructions such as retaining walls and trees. Make sure you’re not getting hosed.
- Phony video. The brazenness of this particular scam is surprising (and troubling): a plumber shows you a video with what appears to be ironclad proof of serious problems with your sewer line. What you are actually seeing, however, is someone else’s problem. The scam artist is playing a pre-recorded video! Slimy move, right? Ask your plumber to record some footage unique to your home before snaking the camera into your sewer line so you know for a fact that the images you see are yours.
- Cutting confusion. Are there roots in your sewer line that are causing clogs? It’s a pretty common problem -- if the sewer pro insists that you need the line replaced, talk to someone else first. Does the plumber claim that his blade can’t cut those roots? Make sure he’s using a three- or four-inch blade to take full advantage of the room offered by the pipe. If he can’t (or won’t) handle the bigger cutting tool, call someone else.
- Right tools, wrong job. When a few guys with shovels show up to take care of a heavy equipment job that was scoped at several thousand dollars and it’s done in a fraction of the time the contractor promised, it’s time to ask some serious questions -- and to make some phone calls to the authorities.
Don’t take risks with your home or bank account (or the assets of your friends, family and neighbors). If a questionable contractor approaches you, feel empowered to walk away. If you don’t trust the contractor working with your friend or family member, have the courage to ask questions. Demand to see the work in progress, the agreement and any required permits.
Avoid these sewer repair scams and uncomfortable problems by working only with service professionals that you know and trust -- professionals with references, reviews and a track record of quality, honesty and transparency.