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These travelers take you for a ride

Action alert: We pass along this information from the Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection: The travelers are back!

We are referring to the seasonal workers, known as travelers, who move into Florida from the North during our winter months. Once they get here, they set up an answering service and take to the streets with their home-repair scams.

John Wood, supervisor of the consumer protection department's criminal section, said the following scenario is typical: You are approached at your home by someone who offers you a good deal on a home-repair job. Often they claim to have materials left over from a job they just completed, and they offer to do anything from repaving or resealing your driveway to painting your home to fixing your roof. The catch is that you have to make up your mind on the spot.

Say no firmly and close the door.

According to Wood, anyone calling about poor workmanship _ and these make up the majority of the complaints _ will get the answering service. You think you're dealing with a legitimate business. You're not! The chances of getting the job redone properly, or repairs made, or a refund, are about nil.

At the end of our winter, the travelers pack up and move north for their summer's work. The travelers are mobile; they are hard to find again once they have your money.

To protect yourself, Wood said to remember the following:

Any job costing more than $25 requires a home solicitation sale permit, issued by the clerk of the court. The permit must be worn where it can be seen. The first violation of the home solicitation statute is a first-degree misdemeanor and carries a $1,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment. The second violation is a third-degree felony.

Check with your local city or county government for any additional permits that may be required.

If you are approached at your home by someone who wants to do a job for you and the cost is more than $25, you have, by law, a three-day cooling off period, during which time you can cancel and get a refund.

The single best way to protect yourself, Wood said, is not to deal with anyone who comes to your door offering to do work on your house.

Instead, if you have a job to be done, you can find plenty of legitimate businesses in the Yellow Pages, or by asking your friends and neighbors. Check to make sure the contractor has the proper construction license. (The place to start is the blue pages in your local phone directory.) Also check with the consumer protection agency and Better Business Bureau in your county to find out whether any complaints have been filed against the business. Ask for references. Get several estimates.

So what do you do if you know you have a job that needs to be done and someone just happens to come knocking on your door with an offer you can't refuse? Wood said if you find yourself wavering, call your local consumer protection agency immediately.

Refund isn't likely now

I sent a check for $37 for some special bands for my home gym to a company in Alabama on Aug. 1. I called in September to check on the order and was told by a recording to call after Oct. 1.

When I called, I learned that the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Will you tell me what steps I need to take either to get my money back or the bands for my home gym? Helen Stevener

Response: Once a company files for bankruptcy, the chances of getting a refund are slim. You may file a claim with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the hope that the company can work its way out of debt. In a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the debts are frozen as the company tries to reorganize and resume business.

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, there is no attempt to reorganize; the assets are liquidated and go to secured creditors first.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.