Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 10, 2014

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In the wake of destructive storms that have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, a new Wisconsin law aimed at protecting homeowners from “storm chasers” seeking to take advantage of the ensuing chaos is making headlines.

While the term “storm chaser” may trigger visions of Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister, the term—as used by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP)—refers to unscrupulous contractors engaging in fraud-for-profit schemes in storm-ravaged neighborhoods.

An Honest Transaction Between Homeowners and Contractors

tornadoThe law, which took effect on January 1, 2014, affords homeowners some legal protection without absolving them from a duty to perform due diligence when hiring out residential repair work. Enforcement is handled by the DATCP.

Sandy Chalmers, a division administrator in the DATCP, spoke to the Wisconsin State Journal about the problems consumers are facing. She believes the new law will go a long way toward reducing the number of homeowners that fall victim to storm chasers. “It sets new parameters for an honest transaction between contractors and homeowners, especially with regard to insurance, because that was an area that had been unaddressed and which these storm chasers had taken advantage of to try to get business,” Chalmers said.

Right to Cancel and Other Protections

The law gives homeowners the right to cancel a contract within a set period of time after signing, and creates some boilerplate language that all contractors doing business in Wisconsin must use when closing repair deals. Effectively, a homeowner can now cancel any deal within three business days of signing the contract.

Contractors are now prohibited from promising to pay a homeowner’s insurance deductible, and they are also prohibited from negotiating with insurance companies on behalf of a customer. These measures are aimed at preventing contractors from making insurance-related promises to homeowners as a way to entice them into signing a contract, and then leaving the homeowners high and dry with their insurance company refusing to pay for claims.

Tips for Avoiding Fraud

The DATCP issued a press release on June 24, 2014 reminding the public that while there are consumer protection laws in place to deal with storm chasers, a healthy dose of common sense can go a long way in preventing fraud. Outlining the rights and obligations of each party under the storm chaser law, and offering several suggestions regarding how to safely choose a contractor, the DATCP release is a font of information for insurers, contractors and homeowners alike. Chalmers echoed the suggestions offered in the release, saying “every year, we hear from consumers who have been ripped off by storm chasers. Take your time to research the contractor you hire.”

Sometimes, the simplest advice is the best advice.