Avoid Natural Disaster Scams with These Smart Tips
Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, wildfires in vast parts of the West and recent flooding in Tennessee have upended many people’s lives and damaged their homes and property, not to mention where they shop and work.
When natural disasters are over, there’s nothing people want more than to quickly get their homes and lives back to normal. But when thousands of people need roofers with plenty of roofing supplies or help clearing fallen trees and repairing windows, “quick” isn’t part of the equation.
Making matters worse is that every natural disaster is followed by people trying to take advantage of those who have suffered the most. And in the case of Hurricane Ida, thousands of people in New Orleans will be without power for days or weeks, contributing to the panic and sense of urgency. This is when disaster victims are at their most vulnerable and scammers know this.
Thanks to the internet, disaster scamming is an active and profitable industry. Whether it is a request for charitable donations or offers to help rebuild properties or connect power lines, there are bad apples lurking, waiting to take advantage of unwitting injured parties or Good Samaritans.
As much as you want work done NOW don’t rush into anything if you are uncertain of the person or organization that is offering help. Same for those of you ready to make a donation to aid others.
Here is some guidance along with governmental websites that can provide you information and protection from illegal charity requests or illegitimate cleaning crew contractors.
Watch Out for Scamming Work Crews
In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the first thought of homeowners is the cleanup of their property. Scam contractors will attempt to lure you into signing up for a cleanup job.
The Federal Trade Commission offers several tips to avoiding scam contractors or work crews, plus what to do after work is done (or promised and paid for) and you feel you’ve been wronged.
Among the tips about hiring recovery assistance:
- Make sure any cleanup crew you work with has a license to do such business, has a business website or social media page.
- Expect them to offer a complete contract with services rendered and completion date information.
- Call the number on its contract and see if someone other than the contractor standing in front of you answers.
- Do not pay by cash, and do not pay for services before they are rendered. Reputable firms will agree to that demand; the criminals will not.
- Protect your personal information such as Social Security and bank account numbers. Be suspicious if someone asks for this information.
Anyone claiming to represent a federal agency will have proper identification, will offer contact information to check on their identification, and will not request money for fees for building permits, grants or permits.
Know the Charity You are Talking To
The American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and the National Organization for Victim Assistance are relief organizations with well-established infrastructure and commitment.
If you get any contact from a disaster relief effort that you have never heard of, check them out with a Google search and investigate the organization’s website before making any donations.
The Federal Trade Commission offers Scam Watch, a link on its main site offering warnings about scam offers you can receive when a natural disaster has struck. It also offers a detailed explanation of how official charities work.
If you choose to make a donation, do so using a credit or debit card or check, rather than cash. That will allow the transaction to be tracked if there is any question of its validity.
Federal Agencies Do Not Contact You
If you are receiving an unsolicited email, text or phone call from a government official, it is almost certainly a scam.
The federal government, as well as state and local agencies, conduct almost all of their application processes from their websites and by email. The Federal Trade Commission, The Federal Communications Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Board all have easy-to-use interactive websites to provide information and offer assistance.
If you receive a solicitation from someone who does not seem official, demand a website and check it out. And, if the website is not a .org or .gov, it is a private business.
That does not necessarily mean they are illegitimate, but it does mean you should check on them through the Better Business Bureau.
Use All of Your Trusted Resources
The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and your state and local government disaster relief agencies can help you identify properly licensed and insured contractors as well as properly licensed charities. The American Association of Retired Persons provides helpful information in its efforts to protect older citizens.
If you are trying to repair insured property, contact your insurance company immediately to begin claim proceedings, and contact the company whenever you are considering a company to do your repair work.
You have another unofficial resource to consider. Your neighbors are in the exact same boat you are in. Talk to them about any relief efforts or contracting work you are considering. There is safety in numbers, and in times of need, the community can provide such safety and reassurances.
Kent McDill is a veteran journalist who has specialized in personal finance topics since 2013. He is a contributor to Codetic.