Esther and Richard Sirinsky never expected to save money with a solar system to power their California home. “We knew we’d never recoup the upfront costs in future energy savings; we’re too old,” says Esther, who is in her 80s. “We just wanted to help the environment.”
The Sirinskys didn’t think they’d lose a bundle, either. But they never got their solar panels and are still owed $2,600 of their deposit.
They were among some 50 San Jose-area homeowners who officials say were bilked of at least $130,000 by Peter Be, owner of Beohana Solar, who listed a phony contractor’s license number on customer contracts.
Be was arrested in July and Beohana was closed. But after posting bail, Be was listed as president of another solar company, Sunny Hill Energy in San Jose. Company officials did not respond to phone calls and e-mails from Scam Alert.
With billions in stimulus money being released for green energy programs, and millions of Americans eager to help the environment, scammers are trying to cash in. Among their ploys:
Tax credits. Credits up to $1,500 are available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for making certain energy-efficient home improvements. But don’t believe claims that any improvement qualifies. For a list of products that do, visit www.energystar.gov/taxcredits.
Also pass on any offer to file the “necessary paperwork” for a fee. “You don’t need any assistance to take advantage of the green home improvement tax credits being offered by the federal government,” says Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau. And ignore any e-mail message claiming to be from the Department of Energy promising a refund. Opening its attachment could unleash computer malware or gather your personal information for identity theft.
Power companies. Some local utility companies offer rebate programs for energy-saving measures, so scammers pose as employees offering to do energy audits or make energy-saving repairs. Sometimes, it’s a ruse to get into your home. Be especially suspicious of pairs of workers; one diverts homeowners while the other steals valuables. Or they may falsely offer to make “needed” renovations on the spot, charging you for the work or collecting a rebate you’re entitled to.
Gizmos. Beware of pricey gadgets such as “magnetic power generators” or certain “energy saver” devices. They don’t work, say officials, and do not qualify for tax credits. Also, installing them could be against the law because it requires tampering with a power meter.
Door-to-door deceit. Scammers may claim to be contractors, representatives of “off-grid” utility companies or salesmen of energy-efficient home products. What you’ll get: high-pressure tactics, false promises and maybe even an attempt to collect personal information.
To validate legitimate contractors, ignore offered “references” and contact your state’s licensing board. Check the Better Business Bureau. And always contact your utility company if a self-described employee comes knocking at your door.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of "Scam-Proof Your Life," published by AARP Books/Sterling.