By John Burton
FREEHOLD – Monmouth County has instituted a new task force to help inform people about fraud associated with Super Storm Sandy and so they can easily report possible problems to authorities.
As home and business owners move forward with restoring their properties and lives following Super Storm Sandy, acting county Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said they should be conscious of unscrupulous contractors and fraudulent charity schemes.
Should they fall victim to them, they should also know there is help available, he said.
Gramiccioni has begun allocating resources for the Sandy Fraud Task Force. The mission of the new unit is to inform the public of the possible threats and offer a place where they can address the threats and complaints that may arise.
When the storm slammed into the area it was estimated that it damaged more than 10,000 residences in Monmouth County. About 32,000 people registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to seek assistance, including financial help.
People have started seeing insurance settlements and other money come in and they are looking to hire qualified companies to undertake that work. “Unfortunately,” Gramiccioni said, “there are those unscrupulous contactors who will come out and try to make a quick buck and potentially defraud somebody, taking advantage of people who are already in a terrible situation.”
Prior to the formal announcement and rollout of the task force this week, Gramiccioni said he hopes to use the opportunity to make people aware of red flags that could indicate possible scams. The other major role of the operation will be to serve as a sort of “one-stop” centralized location for victims. “The goal of the task force is to give the aggrieved homeowner a single, integrated entity so they can check with us after they make a complaint and we’ll keep them apprised,” he said.
The task force will be housed in a county-owned facility, the Bayshore Activity Center at 119 Port Monmouth Road in Middletown’s Port Monmouth section, which is being made available through the cooperation of the county’s Park System.
The location will be staffed half days on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A hotline telephone number – 855-SANDY-39 – and website – Sandy Fraud.com – have also been established for public use.
In addition, the prosecutor is distributing a brochure that will inform people about issues to be aware of when looking for a contractor and what signs might denote honest and possibly dishonest vendors.
Among those cautions is “don’t trust people who tell you a written estimate isn’t necessary,” Gramiccioni warned. Homeowners should always have the scope of the work documented; request the contractor’s state registration number; ask for references; and be fearful of any request that the work be paid up-front or in cash. Homeowners should also seek multiple estimates and research contractors through the various state websites available, the prosecutor said.
In addition to dealing with home repair work, the task force will concentrate on various charitable phone, social media and cyber scams that have arisen since Sandy, according to Gramiccioni.
His initiative is the first for a county prosecutor’s office in the state, but others are in the process of establishing similar efforts, Gramiccioni said.
Gramiccioni’s office staff reached out to the Miami-Dade District Attorney’s Office in Florida for advice on setting up the task force because that office established a task force in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew.
The prosecutor’s office and area police departments have received complaints from homeowners alleging fraud since the storm, Gramiccioni said. He hopes to get out in front of any widespread problems as residents work to restore their homes, particularly as weather gets warmer and work is expected to accelerate.
While the prosecutor’s office is the lead agency for the task force, it is working with the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department and Offices of Aging and Disabilities with assistance from with the state Office of the Attorney General and Division of Consumer Affairs.
The task force will also be coordinating efforts with the FBI and IRS, Gramiccioni said.