AG’s Office Sends Columbia Gas, NiSource Orders to Preserve Documents for Potential State Investigation
BOSTON – Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey today announced new resources in her office to support Merrimack Valley residents and businesses recovering from the devastating fires and explosions that rocked the area two weeks ago.
“I want residents and businesses in the Merrimack Valley to know that my office is here to help and we will be for as long as it takes,” said AG Healey. “We are committed to holding those responsible accountable and protecting homeowners, renters and businesses from anyone who tries to take advantage of this disaster.”
“The focus in Lawrence has and will continue to be making sure that our residents get their gas services restored so that they can have access to hot showers and cook – returning life back to normal for them,” said Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera. “I want to thank Attorney General Maura Healey for coming to Lawrence today and sharing resources to help residents identify scam lawyers who only have their own interests at hand.”
Residents and business owners with questions and concerns should contact the Attorney General’s new hotline at (617) 573-5370 in order to connect with specialists in the office who are able to handle questions about legal representation, home improvement scams, and insurance claims from homeowners, renters, and local businesses. The AG’s Office will also be sending staff to assist individuals at the claims center in Lawrence.
In addition to being a resource for residents, lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office are directly in touch with Columbia Gas to make sure that the utility is preparing to fully and effectively compensate impacted individuals and businesses. This week, AG Healey also sent Columbia Gas and NiSource orders to preserve documents for a potential state investigation.
Earlier this month, in response to this incident, AG Healey issued an advisory about giving wisely to charities and knowing your consumer rights. Today, the AG’s Office is offering additional resources and advice to residents in need of support.
Unauthorized Practice of Law
The AG’s Office warns impacted residents and businesses not to be pressured into signing up for legal representation they do not understand. The AG’s Office also advises residents to watch out for dishonest individuals who falsely hold themselves out as attorneys and provide advice and services they are not qualified or legally allowed to perform. The AG’s Office is urging residents to take precautionary steps to avoid such fraud (sometimes called “notario” fraud).
· Make sure you are working with a licensed attorney. Look up anyone who claims to be an attorney at the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers to confirm that he or she is licensed to practice law in Massachusetts. Only a licensed attorney can:
o Represent you in court.
o Advise you as to whether you should apply for benefits or protections.
o Explain your legal options and give you legal advice.
· Do not sign a contract or agreement you do not understand. You can ask to have these documents translated into your native language.
· Never sign a blank form. Make sure you read and understand all the information on any form that you sign.
· Get copies of documents. Get copies of every document that you sign and keep all of your original personal documents.
· Get receipts. Insist on a receipt for every payment you make, including cash payments (but beware of anyone who insists on cash payments).
- No legitimate lawyer can promise you a particular result. Be wary of:
- Promises you will recover money or promises to pay you now for a settlement that has not happened yet.
- Insistence on payment in cash or money orders, which makes it easier for a non-lawyer to deny having received payments.
- Anyone who asks you to lie or conceal information.
- Anyone who asks you to conceal his or her involvement. If a lawyer is legitimate, he or she should disclose their involvement to everyone involved.
· File a complaint against an attorney. If you have complaints against an attorney, you can contact the Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, at https://www.massbbo.org/Complaints or at (617) 728-8750.
· Find an attorney. If you need help finding an attorney, you can visit https://www.mass.gov/info-details/finding-a-lawyer.
Many affected residents and businesses have questions about how to recover for losses. Before making any insurance claim, impacted individuals and businesses should first consider exhausting the claims process through Columbia Gas. Importantly, for anyone who has suffered damage or been displaced, the AG’s Office advises that you make a list of damaged or destroyed items in your home or business, save receipts relating to expenses, and document any damage with photographs and/or written descriptions.
· Greater Lawrence Property Claims Helpline. Impacted residents and businesses should file a claim regarding loss or damaged property with Columbia Gas. The helpline is staffed 24-hours a day to receive claims of loss or damaged property: (800) 590-5571.
Home Improvement Contractors
The AG’s Office encourages consumers to do their due diligence before they enter into any agreements with home improvement contractors:
· Shop wisely. When selecting a contractor, make sure that the job is completed at a reasonable price and the work is conducted in a safe and responsible manner. Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations about contractors they have used and trust. Always ask contractors for references.
· Research. Check to make sure your contractor is registered with the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. This will allow you to check any complaint history. Some consumers also file complaints about home improvement contractors with the AG’s Office. The existence of a complaint does not necessarily mean that a particular contractor is not reputable.
· Solicitations. Be extra cautious if a contractor solicits business by the phone or by knocking on the door.
· Get it in writing. Make sure you obtain a written contract or price estimate that details the job that will be done. For more complex projects, ask for an itemized estimate.
· Upfront fees. Be wary of contractors who demand the full price of the work up front. Reputable contractors typically require a portion of the fee upon signing the contract and the remainder when the job is done. (Some ask for a payment in the middle of the work, depending on the scope of the project.) For home improvement projects that exceed $1,000, consumers cannot be required to make a deposit of more than one-third of the project price in advance, except for orders of custom-made materials.
For more information or assistance, contact the Attorney General’s dedicated hotline for Merrimack Valley residents at (617) 573-5370. It is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.