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Originally published December 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 6, 2007 at 8:47 PM

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After the floods come the scammers, officials warn

Attorney General Rob McKenna and the state Department of Licensing have cautioned Washington residents to beware of possible flood-related...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Attorney General Rob McKenna and the state Department of Licensing have cautioned Washington residents to beware of possible flood-related scams, including fraudulent home-repair offers, car sales and charity appeals.

"As the floodwaters recede, scam artists may move into the area to prey on both victims and those who want to help them," McKenna said. "Watch out for questionable contractors, phony charity pitches and cons posing as government officials."

Especially, the agencies warned about:

Offers to help with repairs and cleanup.

The first con artists on the scene are usually questionable contractors who promise immediate or cheap home repair and cleanup, McKenna said. Some of these workers are from out of state and are not registered to do business in Washington. They demand money up front and never do the work, do a shoddy job or require additional money once the job starts.

All contractors who do construction work in Washington must be registered with the state Department of Labor and Industries, post a bond and carry general liability insurance, McKenna said.

Check with Labor and Industries to ensure that a contractor you intend to hire is properly registered. You can search online at www.contractors.lni.wa.gov or call 1-800-647-0982. Compare written bids from several contractors before signing a contract. Never pay for the entire job upfront and withhold the final payment until the work is done to your satisfaction.

Don't take a contractor's word that your insurance will cover the damage, McKenna said. Check directly with your insurance company. You must have a special flood policy to cover damage from floods or mudslides.

Charity solicitations.

Scam artists often take advantage of disasters by soliciting donations for a bogus charity.

If you want to help, give directly to a familiar organization such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army. Do not give your credit card number or other personal information in response to a telephone solicitation. Don't click on links in e-mails — which often send you to bogus Web sites set up by con artists who want to steal from you. Watch out for solicitations that bear names similar to those of legitimate organizations.

You can confirm that a charity is registered with the Secretary of State's Office by calling 1-800-332-4483 or searching online at www.secstate.wa.gov/charities.

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"In disasters of this magnitude, con artists inevitably emerge taking advantage of people's remarkable generosity," Secretary of State Sam Reed said. "I urge all Washington donors to do their homework before they give."

Con artists posing as government officials.

Flood victims should also look out for scam artists pretending to be employed by a government agency or a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance.

Cons will sometimes claim to be government officials in order to request cash up front for repairs, telling the homeowners that their insurance money is coming soon. Or they may pretend to assist you in filling out an application for assistance funds but are really identity thieves looking to steal your personal information.

Insist on seeing proper identification from anyone who offers assistance and never provide personal information to an unknown caller or someone who comes to the door.

Flood-damaged cars.

Car shoppers should look out for vehicles damaged in the recent Washington state flooding, according to the Department of Licensing.

The storm that caused heavy flooding across Western Washington likely damaged thousands of vehicles. Many of these vehicles may be cleaned up and offered for sale by private parties, auto auctions and perhaps even used-car dealerships.

There are significant mechanical, safety and health risks associated with flood-damaged vehicles.

"Many vehicles suffered flood damage and it is possible they may soon be offered for sale," Department of Licensing Director Liz Luce said. "Flood damage is very serious and can undermine a vehicle's safety and resale value."

Dirty floodwater can cause rust and damage major mechanical parts like engines and transmissions. The water also damages electrical systems, especially onboard computers that are often located at low points in vehicles, like under seats. Consumers should look for signs of water damage themselves — such as sand or rust under trunk mats or in fender wells — and also enlist the help of professionals.

Before buying any used car, always get a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic.

Ask to see the title of a used car. Check the date and place of transfer to see if the car came from a flood-damaged state and if the title is stamped "salvage."

Use an online vehicle history tracking service like Carfax.com to get more information about a vehicle's past.

Look for discolored, faded or stained upholstery and carpeting. Carpeting that has been replaced may fit too loosely or may not match the interior color.

If the car's history seems suspicious, ask the seller if the car has been damaged by floodwater. Get the answer in writing on the bill of sale.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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