By Karen Zautyk
In a effort to snare the human vultures who have been preying on Hurricane Sandy victims — and on the kindhearted folk who would aid those victims — N.J. Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa last week announced the creation of the Sandy Fraud Working Group, a statewide “clearinghouse for investigations and prosecution of criminal and civil fraud” related to the storm and the disaster-recovery process.
The working group is coordinating investigative and enforcement efforts at the state, county and local levels “to ensure all cases are referred and prosecuted as efficiently and effectively as possible,” according to a statement released Thursday.
“Though most New Jerseyans responded to Superstorm Sandy with resilience and generosity, some individuals unfortunately are motivated by the desire to take advantage of the misfortune of others,” Chiesa said.
He is urging victims of or witnesses to fraud to contact the working group directly with tips and complaints via phone at 855-SANDY39 (855- 726-3939) or online at www.StopSandyFraud.org.
Investigations will include, but not be limited to, home repair fraud, insurance fraud and fraudulent charitable solicitations.
“We will ensure that all information is acted on by the appropriate agency, that all necessary information is shared across jurisdictional lines, and that all appropriate charges are brought,” the attorney general stated.
The www.StopSandyFraud.org website also includes advice on how to avoid becoming a fraud victim and allows consumers to search the state’s directories of registered charities, registered home improvement contractors, and licensed professionals, such as electrical contractors, master plumbers, HVACR contractors, locksmiths, etc.
There is also a searchable directory of salvage- and flood-titled vehicles. As the state Division of Consumer Affairs explains, “It is not illegal to sell a vehicle that has been damaged by flooding, but the seller is required by law to fully disclose the past damage and the vehicle’s true condition.”
The N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission reports it has processed more than 13,000 vehicles as either flood-titled or salvage-titled since Sandy made landfall.
Post-Sandy fraud-protection initiatives by the attorney general’s office include communication “in the field” with home improvement contractors.
“Consumer Affairs has assigned investigators to scour the hardest-hit areas of Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean counties, and speak directly with home improvement contractors working to rebuild homes in those areas,” Chiesa’s office reported.
The investigative team also attends home shows, reminding contractors “of the need to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs and comply with the Consumer Fraud Act and all other applicable laws and regulations.”
Since Sandy, the division reports it has received registration applications from 3,440 home improvement contractors, an 89% increase over the same period last year.
“Any contractors who fail to register will face notices of violation and civil penalties,” the AG’s office warned.
As for charities, the attorney general filed suit Feb. 21 against an allegedly deceptive Superstorm Sandy charity for “numerous violations of state law.”
To ensure compliance with the laws regulating charities, Consumer Affairs reports it has issued warnings and is monitoring the activities of more than two dozen newly created groups that appear to be soliciting donations in the name of Sandy victims.