In the 1980s police drama "Hill Street Blues," Sgt. Phil Esterhaus would begin the show with a warning to the assembled officers at the morning roll call. "Let's be careful out there," he cautioned.
Nowadays, that same admonition should be aimed at America's homeowners. According to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), four of the 10 most popular scams currently making the rounds revolve around how and where we live.
Ruses involving automobiles topped the list. But ripoffs concerning home improvements and construction were the second most common complaints cited by consumer agencies last year, followed by utilities (ranked no. 3), landlord/tenant issues (7) and household goods (8).
Thirty-three consumer agencies from 21 states participated in the annual CFA survey, which was conducted in partnership with the National American Consumer Protection Investigators. In all, these agencies fielded some 200,000 complaints in 2015.
When it comes to home improvements -- which were among the worst complaints based on the sheer number of them, plus the money involved and the impact on consumers -- gripes were all over the ballpark. Here are some tips from the CFA report for dealing with contractors:
-- Before you hire anyone, ask your state or local consumer protection agency whether they need to be licensed or registered to ensure they are competent to do the work. Then ask to see their license.
-- Obtain several estimates, making sure that they cover the exact same things, and get references from their most immediate past customers -- not the customers they pick out. Beware of contractors who try to scare you into thinking the work must be done immediately. If it's truly an emergency, then the step above increases in importance.
-- Obtain a written contract that describes, in full, the work to be done and sets a payment schedule. The CFA says payments should be proportionate to the amount of work that has been completed and the supplies that have to be ordered.
-- Give only a small deposit. Some states set a ceiling on the down payment contractors can take -- a third of the total amount, for example. The contractor who asks for more is undercapitalized, meaning he needs your money to buy supplies or to finish his last job. And never pay the full amount until the job is finished to your satisfaction.
-- Steer clear, the report warns, of any itinerant contractors who show up at your door uninvited. "These are scammers whose only interest is to take your money. If they do any work at all, it is shoddy and incomplete," the report says. If door-to-door sellers must be licensed, ask to see proof they have complied. Beware of phony licenses; read them carefully.
Now that you've vetted your contractor, here are some tips for avoiding scams from the other categories in the CFA survey: utilities, household goods and landlords.
Phonies who say they are calling from the Internal Revenue Service aren't the only imposters making the rounds these days. So are charlatans claiming to work for public utilities, threatening to cut off your service if your "overdue bill" isn't immediately paid by credit card over the phone.
If you are on the receiving end of such a call, the CFA advises, hang up and call the company directly to verify your account balance. Report the scam not just to the company, but also your local consumer agency, so it can issue a public warning.
When it comes to big-ticket household goods, pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charge if an item is never delivered or it doesn't conform to claims made by the seller. Save all advertisements, receipts, warranties and other documents for your records.
Warranties are especially important. Most manufacturers offer them because they show consumers they stand behind their products. If there is a warranty, you have the right to see it before you make the purchase. But realize warranties vary widely in terms of length, what exactly is covered and what you must do to get the item repaired or replaced.
Disputes with landlords are always nettlesome. Read your lease carefully before signing, and obtain a copy so you'll know what you can and cannot do on the property.
Landlords are required in many states to make sure their properties meet certain health and safety standards. If you call about a problem, follow up with a letter and photos and keep copies for your records. Depending on the severity of the trouble, there could be limits on the time your landlord has to respond. Your consumer agency can tell you about your rights and how to enforce them if the landlord doesn't cooperate.