Fake contractors using wildfires to take advantage of devastated people

Picking up the pieces is often the main focus of those whose homes or businesses have been destroyed by wildfires. In that singular focus, it’s understandable why someone who claims they can help pick those pieces up for cents on the dollar would be welcomed with open arms by those who have lost it all.

But that kindness, according to multiple state agencies, is sometimes too good to be true.

The Gray Fire in Washington killed one person and destroyed 185 structures. Victims in the devastated community of Medical Lake are falling prey to an ongoing scam, according to the state’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). The scam involves “contractors” showing up uninvited and offering to help people rebuild. The fake contractors offer to do work and ask for a deposit, only to disappear and raise their prices once the funds are handed over.

The scam has recently happened frequently enough in the Washington community of Medical Lake that L&I issued a warning telling residents affected by wildfires not to accept these solicited offers.

“Disasters like our state’s recent wildfires often bring out scam artists itching to make a buck from homeowners desperate to quickly rebuild or repair their homes,” the warning read. “That’s why [L&I] is urging people recovering from the devastating fires to be sure to hire contractors registered with the department.”

The department outlined numerous ways people looking to rebuild can avoid becoming victims of the scammers. The department recommended obtaining a written contract, getting three written bids, and never paying in full before a job is completed. L&I also said it has an entire database where interested people can look up and verify a contractor’s registration status.

“L&I requires construction contractors to be registered and have liability insurance, a business license, and a bond to provide some financial protection if something goes wrong with the project,” the department said. “It’s easy to verify contractor registration at ProtectMyHome.net or by calling L&I at (80)647-0982 and choosing 2.”

A similar warning was shared by California’s Insurance Commissioner in 2018, warning wildfire victims to not fall for schemes involving price gouging, debris removal, or fraudulent charitable solicitations.

“Because property loss from a disaster can be so traumatic, victims of disaster can become easy targets for fraud,” the commissioner’s website said. “It is important to keep a sharp lookout for people who try to play on the emotions of those stricken by disaster.”

Disaster assistance: Resources are also available through the Spokane County Disaster Assistance Center at the Spokane Falls Community College, Building 9, 3305 W. Whistalks Way, Spokane, WA  99224 – (509)998-2750. Additional resources for property clean-up can be found at Spokane Regional Health and Spokane Air: bit.ly/44o05BX.