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Elderly are easy prey for con artists Add to ...

There are contractors who do great work. There are contractors who do poor work because they don't know any better. And there are contractors who are just con artists. The worst of these guys target seniors - the most vulnerable group of homeowners.

Elderly women, many of them widows, are often the victims. Their husbands might have been the ones to handle the house maintenance, or at least they had hired the contractors. Now that their husbands are gone they're on their own. And they're at the mercy of these con artists.

I've heard lately from a lot of police departments across the country that they are building cases against these so-called contractors and charging them with fraud.

It's true that there's a sucker born every minute, but the sad thing is that these "suckers" are trusting seniors who are specifically targeted. Many seniors still have the mindset that they can judge a book by its cover, that a man's word is his bond, and they can make deals with a smile and a handshake.

And when they do get taken, they are embarrassed to report it since they feel vulnerable and are afraid of retaliation. Sometimes they aren't even aware they've been ripped off until the police contact them while building a case.

One of the biggest fears many seniors have is losing their independence. So they may be embarrassed to ask for advice from their children or community care workers.

Most commonly, these guys show up at the door with a "special offer," or they say they've noticed some damage or maintenance work that needs to be done. They are always nice. And thoughtful.

People who have been ripped off all say the same thing afterward: "But he was a very nice man [or woman] very polite and friendly." Sure. The more they charm, the more clients they can con.

I've said it many times - good contractors are busy, with clients waiting. They don't need to go door to door to solicit work. If a guy shows up at the door saying he's "working in the neighbourhood," or has a "special offer," be suspicious.

You need to ask yourself: "Why is this very nice man calling me about fixing my roof ... and they can start today ... for a one-time-only, special cash deal?"

Odds are, if you didn't call him, you don't need him.

SCARE TACTICS

If he says: "I noticed you have some damage to your roof/siding/gutters/whatever that needs attention right away," make sure to get a second opinion.

Seniors are on a fixed income and, like any homeowner, want to avoid further damage and the increased cost if they don't make timely repairs.

But let's face it, an elderly homeowner isn't going to be able to go up on their roof to investigate. They are going to take the nice man's word for it when he says there's damage up there.

And would they know what they are looking at if they did? Like most homeowners, they aren't experts. They are going to take the "professional's" word for it. Except these guys aren't professional contractors - they're con artists.

SALES PRESSURE CALL

The cold call usually involves a time-sensitive offer, a one-time-only opportunity or fear tactics to pressure the senior. These people insist on the contract being signed the same day. They resist your trying to get second opinions or competing estimates.

The idea of an incredible deal is always tempting. The problem is there is no such thing in the contracting world - there's always a catch and the con artist gets away before you catch on.

FAKE UTILITIES SERVICE CALL

There's a knock at the door and suddenly the homeowner has an electrical/plumbing/heating/ventilation/air-conditioning issue that needs to be repaired ASAP.

Anyone, especially a senior citizen, wants to trust someone who seems legitimate and has photo ID. If a utility worker needs to enter your home, the company will send a letter or phone you in advance to book an appointment. In the case of an emergency, simply tell them that you will call the utility first, to confirm the required access. Use the service phone number on your last bill.

My advice to anyone with elderly parents who are about to take on a renovation project is to set up a separate chequing account for the project that requires two signatures on each payment. This helps prevent any contractors from pressuring the senior from handing over more than the required amount. It's a simple solution, and one I think everyone can live with, except the con artist.

Fraudulent contractors who prey on seniors have different scams, but here are some red flags:

"We just happened to be working in the neighbourhood."

"We can give you a special price," because you're a senior, or because "we have extra material from another job"

"We can give you a discount if you let us use your home to advertise our work"

Be suspicious if they:

Demand payment before all the work is completed or ask for money for materials up front. (Real contractors have accounts at building supply dealers.)

Quote a price without seeing the job.

Don't give you a written contract outlining exactly what they will do and by what date the job will be finished.

Offer "lifetime warranties."

Demand payment in cash.

Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV. For more information, go to http://www.holmesonhomes.com

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