SonomaCountyRecovers: Official recovery information for Sonoma County fires

Consumer Protection

Price Gouging After Wildfires

Price Gouging Protections Extended By Governor To December 4, 2018

California Penal Code Section 396 generally prohibits charging a price that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of an item before a state or local declaration of emergency. This law applies to those who sell food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials and gasoline. The law also applies to repair or reconstruction services, emergency cleanup services, transportation, freight and storage services, hotel accommodations and rental housing. The Governor has extended the State of Emergency for Sonoma County to December 4, 2018 so the price gouging limitations will continue to apply during this time.

Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in a one-year imprisonment in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution. The District Attorney and the Attorney General can enforce the statute. Our office will investigate all reports of price-gouging.

There are many factors that go into evaluating whether the price gouging prohibitions have been violated. The fact that a price has increased or is greater than what other similar establishments charge is not the sole determining factor. Many times, there are legitimate reasons such as increased costs that may justify a price increase.

Complaints can be made on the District Attorney’s website at http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/District-Attorney/, or by calling (707) 565-5317. It would be most helpful if victims or witnesses could provide the District Attorney’s Office with emails, pictures, or other documentation showing the before and after prices.

A complete copy of Penal Code Section 396 can be found at:
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN§ionNum=396.

Fraud Alert: Fire Debris Removal Fraudulent Bills

Fraudulent bills for fire debris removal have been reported by property owners in Mendocino County who are participating in the state-sponsored fire debris removal program. While no instances have been reported in Sonoma County, both the County of Sonoma and the City of Santa Rosa want residents to be aware of the potential scam. If you receive a bill for payment associated with debris removal, DO NOT PAY IT, and please notify the District Attorney right away by calling (707) 565-5317. The County of Sonoma and City of Santa Rosa are not sending out any insurance reimbursement payment notifications at this time. Any requests for payment will come from a governmental agency. Additionally, a press release will be issued that explains the process once insurance reimbursement payment notifications are sent to property owners.

More information available here.

FEMA Disaster Legal Services

FEMA, through an agreement with the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, provides free legal help for survivors. Disaster Legal Services provides assistance to low-income individuals who, prior to or because of the disaster, are unable to secure adequate legal services to meet their disaster-related needs.

http://wildfirerecovery.org/services/legal-services/

Unlicensed or Fraudulent Contractors

As a result of increased demand for constructions services, many unlicensed contractors seek out work.  Please check with the Contractor’s State Licensing Board website to make sure that the contractor you hire is licensed, insured and bonded at  http://www.cslb.ca.gov/  and that they have the appropriate specialty license if required.  Contracting without a license is a crime and enhanced penalties are provided for contracting without a license during a state of emergency.  Reports of unlicensed contractors can also be made on the website.

Additionally, some contractors may take on more work that they are able to perform or try to exact a greater deposit than the $1,000 deposit they are authorized by law to require before work commences.  Reports of any problems with licensed contractors should also be reported to the State Contractors Board.

The North Bay Disaster Fraud Task Force has received indications that contractor and/or construction fraud could be occurring in the North Bay Area, as part of the recovery efforts following the wildfire disaster. Contractor fraud involves illegal acts committed by unlicensed or unscrupulous contractors and includes performing substandard repairs, offering services that deliberately cheat a consumer, or contracting without a license. Contractors may also attempt to commit construction fraud, which includes knowingly obtaining money, property, or labor by false pretense.

Therefore, before signing a contract with a contractor for any wildfire-related repairs or rebuilding, consumers are encouraged to follow these guidelines:

  • Do not do anything based only on a handshake. For both home improvement projects and new construction of single family homes, there must be a contract in writing signed by both parties and the consumer must be furnished a copy of the written agreement (signed by the contractor) before work starts. Additionally, all changes to the original contract must be made in writing and signed by both parties. After a disaster, consumers have seven business days to cancel a contract, as long as it was not signed in the contractor’s place of business.
  • Be cautious when making a down payment because it is common for fraudsters who receive a big down payment to then disappear without completing any of the contracted work. For a home improvement job in California the down payment can total no more than 10% of the contract price or $1,000, whichever is less.
  • It is illegal for an unlicensed person to advertise that they can do construction work unless the person clearly states that they are “not a licensed contractor.” The person must be licensed by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) to contract for work that costs $500 or more (labor and materials).
  • The contractors license number and business name must be displayed on all commercially registered vehicles used in the course of business. Additionally, the contractors license number must be listed on any contract, bid, or advertisement for construction work.
  • Fraudsters may steal a business name and/or license number and represent it as their own or say that they work for a licensed contractor even though they are actually not affiliated with that contractor. For a home improvement project, only someone with a contractors license, or an employee of a licensed contractor who is a registered Home Improvement Salesperson on file with the CSLB, is allowed to give a bid and/or sign a contract.
  • Consumers can use the “Instant License Check” feature on the CSLB website to look up a contractor or Home Improvement Salesperson by name, license number, or doing business as (DBA), to verify that they are in fact a licensed contractor or registered Home Improvement Salesperson. Consumers can also get a wealth of information on rebuilding after a disaster by visiting the “Disaster Help Center” on the CSLB website.

It is a felony to contract without a license in a declared disaster area. Additionally, any person involved in a scheme to defraud a consumer of a residential or nonresidential structure in connection with the offer or performance of repairs to the structure for damage caused by a natural disaster could be ordered to make full restitution to the victim and/or pay a fine of up to $25,000 and could also be imprisoned.

If you believe you have been the victim of disaster-related contractor or construction fraud, please contact the FBI San Francisco Division at 415-553-7400 or https://tips.fbi.gov or the Contractors State License Board at 800-321-2752 or www.cslb.ca.gov.

FEMA Fraud

We have received reports that fraudulent applications are being filed for FEMA relief. If you believe that you are the victim of disaster relief fraud associated with FEMA, please report the fraud directly to the FEMA Fraud Branch via the following phone number and/or email addresses:

  • FEMA Fraud Branch (also known as FEMA Office of the Chief Security Officer)
  • (866) 223-0814
  • FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov
  • stopfemafraud@fema.dhs.gov

The FEMA Fraud Branch will process the complaint and attempt to remediate the fraud. The FEMA Fraud Branch will also refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the FEMA Fraud Branch will not respond individually to victim complaints. To determine if the fraud has been remediated by FEMA, victims should contact FEMA. It is unnecessary to file a separate report with a local or federal law enforcement agency, unless instructed to do so by FEMA. However, please continue to notify local law enforcement agencies and/or the FBI Santa Rosa Resident Agency regarding potential FEMA fraud, so that trends in disaster fraud activity can be monitored locally.

Additionally, if you believe that you are the victim of identity theft, please visit IdentityTheft.gov to report the identity theft and obtain resources for recovering from identity theft.

Fraudulent FEMA Inspections and False FEMA Claims
Sonoma County and Napa have received complaints of persons identifying themselves as “FEMA inspectors” coming to resident’s homes and asking for personal information. Reports have also been received that false FEMA claims have been filed using resident’s personal information such as social security numbers and when the resident attempts to file for aid they are advised an application has already been filed under their name.

FEMA will not send inspectors to your residence unless you have filed an application for assistance. FEMA inspectors will not collect personal identifying information or bank account information at your residence. This information will only be requested when a person fills out the application online. All FEMA employees and contractors will have federally-issued photo identification badges, which you should request to see.

If an individual shows up at your home to conduct a FEMA inspection and you have not filed an application for assistance, FEMA requests that you immediately contact the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General at (800) 323-8603 or www.oig.dhs.gov. If you attempt to file an application for assistance, but find that someone has already filed an application in your name, FEMA requests that you call the FEMA Office of the Chief Security Office at (866) 223-0814 or report at FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov. Contacting FEMA as soon as possible may prevent payment to the individual responsible for the fraud. You can find more information at https://www.disasterassistance.gov.

If you have been a victim of this scam, you may also be a victim of identity theft. You should take the following steps: report the crime to the police and ask the police to issue a police report of identity theft and advised them you have reported to FEMA; report the fraud to the three major credit bureaus, Equifax at (800) 525-6285, Experian at (888) 397-3742, and TransUnion at (800) 680-7289; carefully review your credit reports for accounts you do not recognize or inquiries you did not authorize; and consider a credit monitoring service or a credit freeze for protection against new accounts being opened in your name. You can find more information on what to do if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft on the Attorney General’s website at https://oag.ca.gov/idtheft/facts/victim-checklist.

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