Fire Victims: Beware of People Seeking Opportunity-Crime

Written by Posted On Sunday, 28 October 2007 17:00

As fires still burn throughout California, many people remain either evacuated or homeless having lost their homes to a raging blaze. Still others are fortunate enough to at least have a place to go home to -- despite the poor shape it's in when they return.

Smoke and ash damage from fires can leave a terrible mess for homeowners to clean up. But getting your home back to normal as quickly as possible is very important for both your mental and physical well-being.

In the San Diego area, sadly, homeowners by now have extensive experience with this. But this time, the fires in 2007 are worse than the terrible fire storm that struck in 2003, leaving many more people affected. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis gave fire victims advice in a press interview last week about moving forward with the cleanup and rebuilding of homes.

"Anyone who preys on people during an emergency like this, our office will deal harshly with them and will vigorously prosecute them," said Dumanis.

Dumanis said that price gouging is prohibited in times like these. She said that during the Cedar fires in San Diego in 2003 her office did not need to prosecute anyone. However, she said that there have been some recent reports of hotels and motels raising their rates and overcharging.

"We're going to look into that," said Dumanis. She also said price gouging should be reported to the Attorney General's office or the District Attorney's office.

The DA's office will be out in full force to make sure that anyone who has lost their home will be working with licensed contractors. "If an unlicensed contractor works during a state of emergency, it's a felony," said Dumanis.

Fire victims should ask to see the contractor's pocket license and a second photo ID. She also cautioned people to verify that the license number matches the contractor who you are dealing with.

And in times like these, opportunity-crime is ripe; watch out for people who seem to just drop by or call at the right moment.

"A lot of times they are going to try to scare people. They're going to do cold calls, unsolicited calls -- that should be a red flag," warned Dumanis.

To report an unlicensed contractor, you can call the District Attorney's office at 800-315-7672 or the Contractor's License Board at 800-321-2752.

Dumanis said a toll-free number through the Contractor's Licensed Board is set up to take calls to report an unlicensed contractor. The number is: (800) 321-2752.

"We're going to have people [who are] undercover out there to make sure that nobody is preying on people who have lost their homes," said Dumanis.

Homeowners insurance is another thing that people are going to be dealing with. Dumanis said it is extremely important to know who you are working with and what you can expect from your policy.

"If you have a policy it may provide for reimbursement -- hotels and meals," said Dumanis. She said the insurance company is who you should be working with for reimbursement. However, there are often roving adjusters -- not employed by your insurance company -- who may try to get you to hire them to help with your claim. Be sure you are certain they are legitimate if you go with that option. If you have any complaints regarding insurance adjusters, call the Department of Insurance Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-927-HELP.

In times of need, many people come out to help and share what they can to ease the discomfort of fire victims, but Dumanis said unfortunately not all share that goal.

"There are people that want to take advantage of you right now because everybody who's out of a home -- been evacuated … people are easily targeted during this time," said Dumanis.

The bottom line is be cautious and research who you plan to work with to put your home and life back together again.

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Phoebe Chongchua

Phoebe Chongchua is an award-winning journalist, an author, customer service trainer/speaker, and founder of Setting the Service Standard, a customer service training and consulting program offered by Live Fit Enterprises (LFE) based in San Diego, California. She is the publisher of Live Fit Magazine, an online publication that features information on real estate/finance, physical fitness, travel, and philanthropy. Her company, LFE, specializes in media services including marketing, PR, writing, commercials, corporate videos, customer service training, and keynotes & seminars. Visit her magazine website:

Phoebe's articles, feature stories, and columns appear in various publications including The Coast News, Del Mar Village Voice, Rancho Santa Fe Review, and Today's Local News in San Diego, as well as numerous Internet sites. She holds a California real estate license. Phoebe worked for KGTV/10News in San Diego as a Newscaster, Reporter and Community Affairs Specialist for more than a decade. Phoebe's writing is also featured in Donald Trump's book: The Best Real Estate Advice I Ever Received and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying Foreclosures. She is the author of If the Trash Stinks, TAKE IT OUT! 14 Worriless Principles for Your Success.

Contact Phoebe at (858) 259-3646 or [email protected]. Visit for more information.

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