Natural disasters can bring out the best and the worst in people. Across Texas, we’ve seen heroic rescues, selfless giving and neighbor taking care of neighbor as people survey the damage and more toward recovery after Hurricane Harvey. But along with those countless examples of good come people trying to take advantage of those who are hurting. Post-disaster fraud schemes are in full swing. The Texas Attorney General’s office has received more than 3,200 complaints of fraud since August 25th.
If you’re a hurricane victim or you know someone who is, it’s important to keep an eye out for these nefarious schemes that can create even more chaos in an already difficult time. Here’s what you need to watch out for:
After Hurricane Katrina, a man Florida launched a website called AirKatrina.com, claiming to be a private pilot delivering supplies and rescuing folks. Instead, he just pocketed the $40,000 he raised through online donations in just two days.
If you’re looking to donate to a charity that’s helping victims of Hurricane Harvey, do your homework. Go with reputable charities and established organizations already working in affected communities, rather than pop up organizations you’ve never heard of. If you’re not sure if a charity is real, use a charitable database like Guidestar or CharityNavigator.org to look up a charity and see their records on giving. Don’t give to folks via Facebook or pages like GoFundMe unless you personally know the people involved.
Many Harvey victims will be relying on the Federal Emergency Management Authority to help with recovering their homes, but fraudsters posing as FEMA officials are already targeting Harvey victims. Texans are getting robo calls, telling them they’re past due on their flood insurance payments to FEMA and to send money immediately. Other scammers pose as FEMA inspectors, charging hundreds of dollars for inspections and pocketing the cash. Still others are stealing victims’ identities and applying for and stealing their FEMA benefits.
If you will be using FEMA to recover from the hurricane, here’s what you need to know:
- You don’t need to pay anyone. “Federal and state workers do not ask for, or accept, money. FEMA staff will never charge applicants for disaster assistance, home inspections, or help filling out applications,” according to FEMA.gov.
- Watch out for false promises. Someone promising they can help you apply and get your benefits faster? Probably a scam. Don’t buy it.
- Ask for ID. Just because someone has a FEMA jacket or shirt doesn’t mean they are a legitimate government employee. Ask for ID and take down numbers on badges. If you’re unsure of someone’s identity, contact local law enforcement.
Contractor or Vendor Fraud
When you’re looking for contractors to repair damages to your home, pay attention for signs of fraud.
“Don’t hire anyone you don’t trust. Always get it in writing. Always get a personal reference. Be hyper-vigilant now,” says Saundra Brown, who handles disaster response for Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
Some scammers posing as contractors or vendors take a deposit for the work and then disappear. Others have homeowners sign a contract on a tablet, telling the victim they’re agreeing to one price when in reality, the contract is for thousands more. Some contractors start work but never complete it or do a shoddy job, leaving the homeowner with more problems to deal with. Be aware when buying a new car or other products right now as well. After Hurricane Sandy, a car dealer was charged with fraud after selling hurricane damaged vehicles to unsuspecting customers.
The Texas Attorney General has some good tips on how to avoid an unscrupulous contractor or door-to-door repairs, such as checking with the Better Business Bureau for business ratings and complaints, getting the salesperson’s license plate number and asking for proof of insurance.
If you’re a Texas Legal member, your legal plan covers consumer law related complaints. Learn more about how we can help you with problems with contractor agreements.
If you see someone charging exorbitant prices for disaster related goods, such as bottled water, food or generators, report it immediately to the Texas Attorney General by calling 1-800-621-0508 or email@example.com.
It’s important to be vigilant about giving out your personal details to anyone right now, as they could use them to steal your identity, apply for FEMA or insurance benefits in your name. Disasters often create financial strain, and you don’t need the headache of dealing with identity theft in the middle of hurricane recovery. Enrolling in a credit and identity monitoring service, like Texas Legal’s coverage with AllClearID, can be especially helpful right now.
Report Disaster Fraud
After Hurricane Katrina, the Justice Department created a task force to fight disaster-related fraud. That task force has grown into the National Center for Disaster Fraud. If you suspect you’ve been the victim of fraud in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, contact them right away to file a complaint. You can call their hotline at 866.720.5721, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail your complaint in writing to National Center for Disaster Fraud Baton Rouge, LA 70821-4909.