In the wake of Hurricane Sally, people are going to social media and asking what fair prices are for debris removal and rooftop fixes.
Some of the prices being cited on Facebook are alarming: $25,000 to $50,00 for tree removal.
It is a situation that Baldwin and Mobile County state and local officials want to stop before it gets worse. During a news conference Monday in Fairhope, officials urged residents to “be patient” and not rush into contracts in which they feel uncertain about or in which a contractor cannot provide adequate proofs of insurance and licensing.
“We are dealing with things we are not used to,” said Baldwin County District Attorney Robert Wilters who, himself, suffered flood damage to his house near Wolf Bay. “One thing we have to be patient with is cleanup and recovery. The scammers are coming in here and are looking for people who are desperate.”
State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, was joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to push for increase penalties against contractors that bilk coastal homeowners during the cleanup. Simpson was the main sponsor of HB194, which was approved by a 97-2 vote in the Alabama House on March 5. The legislation, which increased penalties against homeowner fraud, never received a vote in the Alabama Senate because the session was abbreviated due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the proposal, which would establish the Alabama State of Emergency Consumer Protection Act, a felony offense would be assessed against people who commit aggravated home repair fraud against homeowners following an event that was declared a state of emergency by the governor. Currently, under Alabama state law, the first conviction for home repair fraud is a misdemeanor.
“What we need to do is make sure that law enforcement has the teeth and ability to go after and prosecute people who take advantage of people down here,” said Simpson.
The legislation has the backing of Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, who was in coastal Alabama on Monday to tour storm-damaged areas.
“It’s sad to say that in a time when we should be coming together and helping each other out at our greatest point of need, you have people who are wanting to take advantage of others,” said McCutcheon. “We want to stand firm and say, ‘we don’t accept that.’”
Only two Alabama House members voted against Simpson’s legislation. One of them was state Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, who said in general he believes anti-price gouging bills can have an opposite desire effect than their original intent.
“I think we should let the free market handle this stuff,” said Sorrell, who believes Alabama should have more reciprocity agreements with other states when it comes to licensing builders.
Sorrell, who was not at the news conference in Fairhope, added, “I’m not for anyone defrauding someone else, but if they are licensed to build in Georgia and Mississippi, why are they not licensed here? If they can build a house, they can build a house. We want people coming from other states to rebuild (after) a natural disaster. That should be our attitude.”
The Alabama Attorney General’s Office has received 40 complaints of alleged price gouging since Hurricane Sally made landfall on September 16. Sheriffs in Baldwin and Mobile counties, however, said there have been no arrests made for illegal activities.
“We’ve seen complaints on the over pricing of gasoline, generators, bottled water and ice and hotel and condo rentals,” said Tina Hammonds, assistant Alabama Attorney General.
She recommended people keep a “detailed record” of the offense when they occur. She also said that the public should submit photographs whenever they filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. She also encouraged the public to contact the office’s consumer interest division at 1-800-392-5658.
Hammonds said that price gouging exists whenever a contractor assesses a bill that is over 25% above the average charge assessed within the same area in the past month, and if the price increase was not due to a “legitimate increase in supplies.”
She also suggested the public “stop and take a breath” before entering into contracts for repairs. She said the public should seek out online reviews of contractors and use “common sense” before entering into an agreement.
“Over the next month and the next six weeks, people will be victimized,” said Hammonds, urging people to seek support from family members before moving forward on a project.
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