On Thursday November 2nd,  Assemblyman Jim Patterson of the 23rd district, hosted an Elder Scam Workshop. This is the second workshop he has hosted, in response to constituent requests for more information on elder scams. His office has also received positive feedback on the helpfulness of these workshops. Over eighty adults were present for this highly interactive and informative workshop.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson’s district office can help resolve issues constituents may have with state agencies like the DMV, Franchise Tax Board, and similar agencies. His office also provides certificates of recognition for persons who have provided great service to the community.

Contractors State License Board

The first presenter, Jane Kreidler, from the Contractors State License Board spoke about contractor scams. The board has licensed 285,000 contractors in 44 different classifications. If a homeowner has work that needs to be done, and the estimate is $500 or more in labor and materials the contractor must be licensed. Licensed contractors are required to have a $15,000 bond. Homeowners have more recourse if the contractor does not finish or properly complete the contracted work. Jane Kreidler’s tips for hiring a contractor include:

  1. Getting at least 3 recommendations, if for no other reason than to compare cost- a homeowner has worked hard for their money, and it is important to pay the fair market rate. The board does not get involved in pricing disputes if the homeowner agrees to charges, even if the homeowner is over charged. Some contractors have home improvement sales people (HIS). Home improvement sales people can also bid a job. So it is recommended to tell the contractor that you are not signing anything as you are in the process of obtaining at least three bids. If you do not like the first three bids, get another three bids.
  2. Check to make sure the contractor is licensed. There are two main ways to check to make sure a contractor is licensed. A homeowner can call the contractors board (800-321-2752) or look on the website. Homeowners should ask to see the license (called a pocket card because they are the size of a credit card).
  3. Homeowners should also ask about the employees, if the contractors use employees. Contractors are required to have workers compensation. If someone gets hurt on your property, the homeowner will be liable if the contractor is not properly insured.

Jane Kreidler also discussed two types of home repair contracts.  The smallest of the contracts is the service and repair contract, valued at $750 or less. That is a quick home repair, like a leaky faucet, or a faucet replacement. The contractor will be there for a couple of hours, be paid and leave. Common fraud occurs when the contractor looks around the house and attempts to persuade the homeowner to complete more work. They may say, “It looks like you need more repairs, and we can fix it while we are here.” This is called upselling and they are not allowed to upsell by law. The contractor may not have the correct license, and the homeowner will not be protected by a home improvement contract.

Home Improvement Contract

A home improvement contract is for work valued above $750 and expected to take longer than a couple of days to complete. Jane Kreidler discussed various aspects that need to be included in a home improvement contract.

  1. The payment schedule should include a down payment of 10% or $1,000 whichever is less. The progress payments need to be listed. If a building permit is required, the final payment is withheld until the building department comes to inspect.
  2. The contractor will pull the permit if needed. The cost should be in the contract, and the homeowner needs to be sure the permit is pulled. There have been cases where the permit was not pulled, and the homeowner was penalized by the building department.
  3. The other thing to put in the contract is the time schedule. The schedule should include a start and end date. There may be delays if the homeowner puts in a change order, however make sure that the contractor also agrees with the change order. There have been cases where contractors string homeowners along for a long time period. Homeowners have 4 years to file a complaint on substandard work, but the homeowners are encouraged to file sooner.
  4. Subcontractors also need to be included in the contract if they are used.
  5. The contract should specify who the material supplier is. Homeowners need to be sure the subcontractors are licensed and that they and the material supplier are paid.
  6. Make sure to include a garbage and waste materials haul out clause. If it is not written into the contract, contractors are not required to haul waste materials away.

Scams

Jane Kreidler cautioned about doing business with people who knock on homeowner’s doors asking to do chores such as; yard clean up, tree trimming, car detailing, and solar and home efficiency salespeople. Some of these solicitors may ask for cash, and when the homeowner gives it to them, they will make up a reason to go to the store, and never return. She gave an example of a recent scam where a man would knock on doors and tell the homeowner that he, “was just at your neighbor’s house and she had poor water pressure and I was able to help her, do you want me to check your water pressure.” Well, he had already turned the water down from the outside shut off valve, so of course the water pressure was low. And he took $200 and went outside and turned the water on.”

Home improvement sales people may be registered and work for a licensed contractor, but their sales tactics may not be ethical. There have been cases where older adults who did not have the mental capacity to sign contracts have been encouraged to sign them. The home improvement sales people are required to look for mental capacity, but often they do not because they want to make the sale.

There are several legitimate financing programs that are not good for seniors; such as the Hero Programs, and Ygrene. They require no money down and no money out of pocket. They add the payments to the homeowner’s property taxes. The interest rates are very high, and there is an escalator clause, so the interest rate goes up a percentage every year for twenty years. The program also puts a tax lien on the house. Jane Kreidler suggested homeowners get a loan from another source if necessary, because of the long term savings.

Destin Watkins, Clovis Police Department

Destin Watkins, a reserve police officer with the Clovis police department is a digital forensic analyst who is skilled in  tracking internet crime.  He cautioned against internet and phone scams. Online scams are a multi-million dollar industry. These crimes are difficult to investigate. Most search warrants lead to more search warrants, and about 85% of the time the crime is from out-of-state or out-of-the-country.

Most of the phone scams are built off of fear.

Dustin Watkins advised that one should stop and think before responding. A person should never automatically believe or trust the caller or email. If in doubt, take the extra step to get the information you need from a different source before responding. This is because most of the phone scams are built off of fear. The caller saying, ‘I am Joe Smith from the sheriff’s office and you have a warrant for your arrest, and we are coming to arrest you’ places a hook of fear. They continue by saying, “But we can stop this, if you pay the bail.” It is in this fear that people make irrational decisions and agree to make payments, often in the form of gift cards. Gift cards are never an accepted form of payment for government or other legal entities. Scams are designed to make people think there is nothing they can do except follow the given directions.

Scams are also designed to make people think they are getting a great deal. If you do receive an email, be very careful what you click on. If you don’t expect to get the same deal in person at a store, then don’t expect the email to be ‘real’ either. One should also check the url to verify the website is legitimate when entering credit card information.

Dustin Watkins stressed not answering the phone for unknown numbers. If you answer the phone scammers will call back because they recognize that number as a ‘live’ number. Some scammers are using the 559 area code. Don’t give personal information over the phone. There are scammers who pretend to be credit card companies, however they are virtual phone calls, made from computers. Once they gain access to personal information they can use your credit cards for purchases. Likewise Microsoft and other computer companies will not call wanting access to your computer because there is a problem with it. Once the scammers have access they can remotely control your computer and discover personal information.

CA Bureau of Automotive Repair

Willy Thygesen from the CA Bureau of Automotive Repair spoke about current automotive scams. A repair facility is required to give customers a written estimate for repair work. If the automotive repair person calls to say more work needs to be done, they are required by law to write down the additional repairs and document the call.  Customers need to make sure the contract states exactly what they want done and make sure they receive a copy of the signed contract. Fraud that can happen is when the automotive repair shop doesn’t give customers a hard copy of the original estimate and they continue to add work to the contract which has already been signed. In a complaint situation, the first thing an investigator will do is ask a shop owner for the records. Shop owners are required to maintain the records for a minimum of 3 years. The investigator will look at work order and invoice the shop maintains and compare them to the consumer’s. This is why it is important to have an original hard copy.

When you pick up the vehicle, the automotive shop is required to give you an invoice that lists the parts replaced, the condition of the parts installed (new, used, rebuilt) and the specific work performed. The repair facility is not required to give the consumer the parts that were taken out of the car. Customers may request to see the old parts.

Willy Thygesen also expressed the need to be aware of free standing services offered at gas stations, such as “free windshield repair.” These could be scams and the repair unlicensed; sometimes these licenses are fake or expired. These scams collect car insurance information, and submit multiple claims for repairs (without the owner’s knowledge), and the insurance companies pay.

Willy Thygesen cautioned against hiring automotive repair persons on craigslist, or from tear-offs at the gas station. Consumers should be aware of scams involving persons coming to your home to repair your vehicle. A repair person may show up, provide an estimate, ask for funds to purchase a part, and return with the purchased part. However, they will then discover additional work that requires a more expensive part. When the consumer gives them the additional funds, the automotive repair person often takes the money and does not return. Sometimes the repair person will partially repair the automobile, because then he can come up with the excuse that he wasn’t trying to defraud. They will use the excuse of having to deal with a personal emergency, and promise to come back to complete the repair. Usually, they never return.

The Bureau of Automotive Repair maintains a website where consumers can check if auto repair persons are registered.  The same website can also be used for smog check information. There is also a toll free number to call 1 -800-952-5210.

Neighborhood Watch Program

Roz Clark from the Neighborhood Watch explained that the Fresno Police Neighborhood Watch Program is a 501c3 non-profit all volunteer program. The primary purpose of the neighborhood watch is to become acquainted with neighbors. Neighbors need to identify and solve problems and report unusual activity to the police. The non-emergency number for unusual activity is 559- 621- 7000.

She shared some practical advice regarding scaring potential burglars. She said if a stranger comes to a door and knocks, they may be attempting to determine if the house is empty so they can burglarize it. It is important to not let them in, but do yell out, “I’m busy I don’t want visitors.” Acknowledge you know they are there, because if they are casing the property to burglarize it and they think no one is home, they will attempt a break in.

She also had practical advice for being removed from junk mailing lists. If the junk mail comes with a prepaid envelope, she suggested send the envelope back with a letter saying that you want to be removed.

People should also be aware that many solicitation calls are from fundraising companies. Fundraising companies are only required by law to give a small percentage of the donation (about 5%) to the organization for which they are fundraising. If one wants to contribute, give to the organization directly.

There have also been issues with check forgery from checks stolen from rural mailboxes. Checks have been stolen and washed. Then new payment amounts and payees put into them. The ink from check writing gel pens are harder to wash off. People with rural mailboxes should not put checks in outgoing mail. Incoming mail should be checked daily.

Medicare Fraud

Yee Vue from Valley Caregiver Resource Center (VCRC) spoke about Medicare fraud. The HICAP program provides unbiased information about Medicare Plans, prescription drug coverage, and physician services. It is a free service, it covers Fresno and Madera counties.

Older adults should be aware that agents who try to switch them to a different Medicare Plan receive commission from the chosen plan. There are agents who want to help the consumer, and some who would rather help themselves.

Coming soon in 2018 – 2019 new Medicare cards will be issued without Social Security numbers. But until then, when a consumer gives out their Medicare number, they are also giving out their Social Security number. This is one’s identity. Don’t just give out that number.

Finally, if you are providing care for a loved one and you decide to hire a caregiver to come into your home to help out, you can call the VCRC at (559) 224-9154 to get referrals of persons and companies who have been licensed by the Department of Social Services and have background checks.

He concluded by saying, “The more information we have, the easier it is to prevent falling into some of these traps.”