Wisconsin officials warn of predatory contractors

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin consumer protection officials are warning victims of recent flooding to be wary of predatory contractors who use low-quality material or fail to finish repair work.

Transient contractors look to take advantage of homeowners affected by flooding or other natural disasters, Lara Sutherlin, a division administrator for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Predatory contractors, often called "storm chasers," offer to conduct repair work faster and at a lower cost, but will use low-grade material or leave before completing the job, Sutherlin said. Scammers often prey on the most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, she said.

"(Seniors) often are more isolated and susceptible to high pressure sales tactics and promises of remediating harm immediately," Sutherlin said. "And they can often be more susceptible to this notion that 'if you don't do this right now, all these other horrible things will befall you.'"

The Better Business Bureau Serving Wisconsin gets reports of scams after every weather-related disaster, said Lisa Schiller, the bureau's investigations director.

"The complaint from year to year is that the consumer makes a payment and then later doesn't know who they hired. The company doesn't produce any information about themselves, business cards or brochures," she said. "There's no way that we or probably any agency can assist them in trying to get their money back."

Homeowners should call their insurance agency and take photos of storm damage before seeking local contractors, Schiller said. Residents can also call the bureau or go online to verify if a contractor is reputable and see if there are any consumer complaints filed against them.

"Consumers often think with their heart and not so much with their head," Schiller said. "They're feeling very vulnerable and they want to get the repairs made as soon as possible."

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