Spring cleaning is like an ancient instinct for consumers: As the days start getting longer and things warm up a bit, they reach right for a broom, sponge or hammer.
Scammers like your instincts. Why?
Because they can count on them, because it implies you aren’t in control of your impulses, and that you must engage in the age-old act of spring cleaning, no matter the cost.
This year, you should really disappoint them. Here are the top three spring cleaning rip-offs and what you can do to prevent them.
The unlicensed contractor scam.
As a victim of an unlicensed contractor — it was actually the opening anecdote in my book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals— I know how much damage a bogus contractor can do.
These scammers prey on homeowners during the spring months, offering to do work at cut rates. The Federal Trade Commission issues regular warnings about these come-ons.
How to avoid them: Ask for the “contractor’s” paperwork, including insurance and references. If they can’t provide them, then don’t walk — run.
A reputable contractor doesn’t ask for a large advance payment and doesn’t insist on cash. If he or she does, that could be another warning sign.
Scammy cleaning products.
Early spring is prime time for door-to-door salesmen hawking fraudulent cleaning products. (They also rear their ugly heads after a natural disaster, like the recent floods.
It might be an overstatement to say any cleaning product sold door-to-door is a fraud, but you have to be extra vigilant.
How to avoid them: Stick to the tried-and-true cleaning products, like bleach and hydrogen peroxide, and if anyone shows up at your door promising a “miracle” cleaning solution, politely tell that person you’d like to do a little research on the product before making a purchasing decision. Often, that’s enough to get rid of them
The housecleaning scam.
This is perhaps the most nefarious of all spring cleaning rip-offs. When someone looks at the winter clutter and says, “We need professional help,” these scammers strike. They set up a fake housecleaning service, and their goal is to steal every valuable item in your home.
How do they do it?
They undercut the rates of other licensed businesses, win your trust over a period of days or weeks, and the moment they’re left alone, they burglarize your residence — and then disappear without a trace.
Here’s a San Francisco-area housecleaner who was suspected of pulling this scam (unsuccessfully, it seems.)
How to avoid them: Like the contractor scams, you’ll want to see the paperwork, including a business license and any applicable documents required by the city, county or state.
If they can’t show it, move on to the next housecleaning service, or clean your own home.
Spring is the perfect time to clean out the winter cobwebs, not to have a scammer clean out your bank account.
Watch out for unlicensed building contractors and housecleaners, as well as snake-oil salesmen promising a “miracle” cleaning solution.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.