Outsmart impersonators with these tips for avoiding scams after a natural disaster
Natural disasters can bring out both the best and the worst in people. While many of us are concerned with ensuring friends and neighbors are safe and sound, some unsavory types will use the chaos and confusion surrounding a disaster as a way to make a few bucks. While most contractors and charities are legitimate, it’s best to err on the side of caution after a natural disaster because there are bad actors out there.
Here are just a few ways con artists may try to scam you after a natural disaster and what you need to know to protect yourself.
Common Scams After a Disaster and How to Avoid Them
1. Fake Contractors
In the days following a natural disaster, you may see people calling themselves contractors in your neighborhood, going door to door, offering their services to homeowners—everything from debris removal to roof repairs. While some of these contractors might be legitimate, you should always be wary of unsolicited visits. On the surface—especially if your home is damaged and emotions are running high—these surprise visits may seem like an answered prayer. However, scammers may demand payment upfront and not complete the work or provide inadequate services with no way for you to follow up.
A few red flags to watch for are:
Demands for cash upfront
Claims of a one-day-only sale
Aggressive or fear-mongering sales pitch
Failure to provide references
Failure to show business or professional licensure
Failure to provide proof of physical business address
2. FEMA or Insurance Adjustor Impersonators
It’s not uncommon for identity thieves to impersonate FEMA officials or insurance agents. These bogus officials will attempt to access your personal information, including social security numbers or other identifying information. Scammers may then take this information and steal the money provided by the government or as a result of a homeowners insurance claim meant for home repair or living expenses in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
If you receive a phone call from a FEMA representative or an insurance adjuster, only provide your claim number. They should have access to any other information required to process your claim. Sometimes, an impersonator will tell you they can expedite your FEMA claim for a fee. This is a scam. FEMA does not offer a paid expedited claim service.
To avoid falling prey to impersonators, always ask for verification that they are who they say they are. If you’ve received a phone call from someone claiming to be from FEMA or your insurance company and aren’t certain they are, hang up and call the organization directly. If a representative comes to your home, ensure they have proper photo identification. If you have any doubts, ask them to leave and call the organization directly.
3. Bogus Charities
After a disaster, it’s not uncommon for fake charities to begin soliciting funds. These scammers can be quite savvy and are well-versed in playing into people’s sympathy for those impacted by the tragedy. If you are contacted by someone claiming to work for a charity, do your due diligence before donating. If it’s a charity you aren’t familiar with, look them up on a watchdog site like Charity Navigator or CharityWatch and check their entry at the Better Business Bureau.
Here are a few warning signs to watch out for if a charity contacts you:
Aggressive plea for donations
Reluctance to provide a call back number or contact information
Promise of entry into sweepstakes or raffle
Request for funds via wire transfer
Request for funds via mail to P.O. box
Demand for personal or banking information
To be on the safe side, you can always contact the charity directly or go with a well-known organization like The Red Cross or United Way.
What to Do if You Experience a Home Improvement Scam After a Natural Disaster
If you find that you’ve been a victim of a scam in the wake of a natural disaster, you can take a few concrete steps to rectify the situation:
Collect all documentation related to the scam: Emails, bank statements, bogus contracts—any communication you’ve had with the perpetrator will be helpful.
Contact the authorities: Go to your local police department and file a criminal complaint. If the police say they can’t help you file a claim against the scammer in small claims court, you can do so yourself without an attorney. In some cases, the perpetrator may even return your money just to avoid having to make an appearance in court.
File complaints: File with the appropriate state licensing boards, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and your state’s consumer protection agency. Also, use online review sites to get the word out to neighbors and other people who were also impacted by the natural disaster and may be at risk.