What’s the difference between a lawyer and a scam artist? Not much, says U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, at least when it comes to those attorneys and others charging to guide superstorm Sandy victims through a new flood insurance claims review process.
New Jersey’s senior senator, himself a former attorney, issued a warning Thursday morning to policyholders who filed a claim after Sandy and may be eligible for more money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program claims review process.
The alert, which came in the form of a news release, cautions homeowners to be leery of “scam-artists offering to help them navigate (the process) in exchange for a substantial cut of any supplemental flood insurance payout they could get.”
FEMA has pitched the review procedure — in which as many as 142,000 post-Sandy claims could be given a second look — as one that does not require the services of attorney.
“You don’t need a middleman taking 30 percent of what you’re already entitled to and been waiting too long to receive,” Menendez said in the statement. “You have every right to have an attorney, and there are organizations that will offer free services to ensure that you get 100 percent of what is owed to you.”
Some Sandy victims are skeptical that FEMA — which may have bungled the handling of their claim initially and failed to suss out the potential fraud under its nose that led to the creation of the claims review process — is trustworthy.
Weisbrod, Matteis & Copley has been marketing itself to Sandy victims, including in a television spot that features quotes from Menendez — something that the senator indirectly references with umbrage in his news release.
August Matteis, a partner in the Washington-based firm, defended attorney outreach to Sandy victims, saying in a statement to the Asbury Park Press that “Sandy homeowners without representation may never know how much of their money they’ve left on the table.”
“If the senator suggests homeowners should not retain lawyers to handle their reopened FEMA claims, thousands of Gulf Coast homeowners would completely disagree,” Matteis said, referring to claims he handled after Hurricane Katrina. “To tell people that FEMA and its insurers will do the right thing for homeowners this time around is either naïve, political or both.”
WM&C’s fee is 28 percent of whatever additional payout is recovered, Matteis said previously.
Menendez’s office said anyone who wants legal guidance should be fully aware of their options and the cost of each one.
“There are organizations who will offer assistance and advice that have been trained on the process by FEMA and will do it for no charge,” said Menendez spokesman Steve Sandberg, who noted that homeowners can get in-person help during a workshop Monday in Brick.
Leadership at the Long Term Recovery Groups in Monmouth and Ocean counties said they were not immediately aware of any out-and-out swindling.
But Sue Marticek, executive director at the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, did say that lawyers have been “aggressively soliciting” Sandy victims.
“I ask people to send me what they’re getting (from lawyers),” she said Thursday. “My desk is full of (mailers).”
Marticek, whose group tries to fill in the gap between what a rebuilding homeowner has and what they need to finish, said she understands the skepticism surrounding FEMA, but that the cost of an attorney — especially one that provides no added value — could be detrimental to getting people back home.
“I know how short of money people are,” she said. “I know that an extra $10,000 or $20,000 could make the difference between people recovering or not.”
Contributing: Nicole Gaudiano
Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, razimmer@GannettNJ.com
Have questions about the Sandy claims review process?
Policyholders who feel they were shortchanged by their flood insurance claim after superstorm Sandy can now challenge their payout through a new review process.
The Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, Legal Services of New Jersey and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice are hosting a pair of legal clinics where people can talk to attorneys about how it works. There is no need to register in advance.
• 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Toms River Town Hall, 33 Washington St.
• 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday at Civic Plaza, 270 Chambers Bridge Road, Brick, with U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J.