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Swindlers targeting tornado victims

Despite efforts of police and building officials to protect tornado victims from unsolicited and unlicensed contractors, some opportunists are doing their best to cash in on the weekend's tornadoes.

Just ask Linda Hallas, a resident of the hard-hit Autumn Run subdivision who says she has been pestered by 15 contractors who want her business. The most memorable was the fellow from Orlando who _ despite the fact Hallas' home no longer has a roof _ wanted to clean her carpet.

"It's comical. It's hysterical. It's like, "You've got to be kidding,' " said her neighbor Liz Rosenberger, whose house has been condemned because it is not salvageable.

Police officers, who have cordoned off the hardest hit areas, have been turning away scores of contractors, some from out of state, to protect consumers and keep the streets clear for utility and emergency vehicles. But residents say some still manage to get through.

Micah Bass, owner of the Orlando carpet cleaning company that visited Hallas, said his employees were soliciting business while they were in the subdivision visiting regular customers.

At nearby Park Royale Mobile Home Village, "it was just a steady parade of pickup trucks" on Tuesday, said resident Billie Vermeersch, 76.

Her son, James Vermeersch of suburban Detroit, said he resented the unsolicited contractors.

"You see these guys go by with air conditioning repair on the side of their trucks. . . . Yeah, maybe I'd have it repaired if I could find it."

Down the street, Doris Althouse said she had not been visited by an unsolicited contractor, but she did get a phone call about noon Wednesday.

"I thought it was our insurance adjuster, but the lady said, no, she was calling to see if we needed any minor repairs done. I said, "Lady, I have no minor repairs. I'm wiped out.' "

Meanwhile, some residents who weren't hit by the tornado are feeling the effects of tornado cons. County officials fear that scam artists are using the tornado as an excuse for their latest "charity" drive.

"It looks like there are a few charlatans mixed in with the many honest and licensed groups that are trying to help the tornado victims," said Charles P. Connolly, Pinellas County's charitable solicitations officer.

Connolly said he had received a number of calls from residents inquiring about charities that Connolly has never heard of. He cautioned people to check carefully before donating to an unfamiliar group soliciting for tornado victims.

Still, it looks as if Pinellas residents haven't had to contend with anywhere near the number of scam artists who flocked to Dade County after Hurricane Andrew in August. Within two weeks of that storm, the state attorney general's office fielded 1,000 complaints about price gouging and issued more than 70 subpoenas for price records.

Wednesday, state and local law enforcement and consumer officials said they had not received any complaints of price gouging in the tornadoes' wake.

Officials noted that the damage in Pinellas was confined to much smaller areas than those affected by Hurricane Andrew, so it is a simpler matter to keep out the unscrupulous. Furthermore, because most stores were not damaged, no one in Pinellas has been forced to buy a chain saw off the back of a pickup truck. But some consumer officials said it might be too soon to know if consumers are getting ripped off.

"I'm sure (scams) are going on," said Bill Richards, head of the county's consumer affairs division. "They're going on all the time, and it doesn't take a tornado to bring them out."

Local officials have taken measures to protect homeowners and educate them about the proper procedures for hiring contractors and making sure repairs are done well.

Inspectors from the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board are looking for the unlicensed and unscrupulous. The board's executive director, Bill Owens, says plenty of contractors from out of the area have been hoping to benefit from the tornadoes.

"I'm not sure whether they're stopping by here on their way south (to Dade County) or stopping by here on their way out," he said.

"It's that time of year anyway. In the fall, we get a lot of snowbirds who figure they might as well pay for their Florida vacation by performing unlicensed contracting while they're here."

Owens praised Pinellas Park building officials and police for requiring contractors to show their licenses to get passes even to visit homeowners who request an estimate on a repair.

That policy has meant long lines at the city's building department. But by Wednesday, most contractors seemed to be taking the inconvenience in good grace.

"I've been here five times since Monday," said a weary but cheerful Bill Davis, manager of Genie of Clearwater, a garage door company.

"I understand what they're doing," he said of the building department. "They're trying to protect the community. The problem is, people have to stay home from work to get the door fixed so they want to know when you'll be there, and it's hard to estimate."

City building director Michael B. Gustafson said residents he has spoken to have been grateful for the city's vigilance in keeping out unlicensed contractors. As other city officials did, he pitched in to help hurricane-torn Homestead rebuild and learned much about disaster management.

"Homestead had a lot to do with it," he said of Pinellas Park's current policy. "I've not heard one complaint, except from unlicensed contractors."

10 deadliest torndoes U.S. history since 1900

Date Death toll Tornado detailsMarch 18, 740 Eight tornadoes cut through

1925 portions of Missouri, Indiana,

Illinois, Kentucky and

Tennessee; one killed 689.

April 3-4, 315 At least 148 tornadoes touch

1974 down in 11 Midwest and

Southern states and Canada.

March 21, 268 27 tornadoes hit a 4-state

1932 area in the South.

May 26-27, 249 Tornadoes strike an area from

1917 Illinois to Alabama and

Arkansas to Tennessee; one

traveled 293 miles across

Illinois and Indiana.

April 11, 242 37 tornadoes hit six

1965 Midwestern states.

March 21-22, 230 31 toradoes sweep six

1952 Mississippi Valley states.

May 8-9, 227 Tornadoes strike an area from

1927 Texas to Michigan.

April 20, 220 Tornadoes sweep Mississippi,

1920 Alabama and Tennessee.

April 5, 216 Tornado flattens Tupelo, Miss.

1936

April 6, 203 Tornado rips through

1936 Gainesville, Ga. shopping

area.

Sources: Encyclopedia Americana, New York Public Library Book of Chronologies, National Weather Service, New York Times. Research by Debbie Wolfe of the St. Petersburg Times.

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