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The Disaster After the Disaster

With Atlantic hurricane season just beginning, not to mention recent flooding and storms in Texas and Oklahoma, it’s time to review one of the worst parts of natural disasters – the aftermath. Scam artists come out of the woodwork to capitalize on the misfortunes of others.

Their modus operandi is simple – strike while homeowners are still in shock over the damage done by the disaster, regardless of whether it’s a hurricane, tornado, or just a strong thunderstorm.

Most people don’t know what to do in the aftermath of any of those situations, and it’s easy to take advantage of confused or distracted homeowners who just want everything to go back to normal.

Consider the following situations:

Bogus charity workers

Even people who aren’t directly affected by disaster can become victims of disaster fraud. Their crime? Having big hearts. After a disaster, you often see legitimate appeals for relief help by charities. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to separate those legitimate appeals from requests by solicitors who aren’t so charitable.

How can you tell the difference? Here are some FBI recommendations:

  • Don’t respond to any unsolicited emails, and don’t respond to those soliciting donations through social media.
  • Pay close attention to the name of the organization you hear from. Often, bogus charities will choose a name that’s close to – but doesn’t match – a well-known organization.
  • Make any donations directly to the organization – not to the person purportedly soliciting on its behalf. Don’t donate cash.
  • Be wary of any organization if the address is only a post office box.
  • Don’t give out personal information, including your Social Security number.

Phony government employees

Another class of scam artists includes phony Federal Emergency Management Agency or Small Business Administration officials. Always ask to see identification – take a photo of it with your phone.

Many times these phony government workers are out to get personal information – primarily for identity theft purposes. But some also may ask for application fees or other payments to perform their duties – a legitimate government employee will never ask for these types of payment.

Unscrupulous adjusters and lawyers

Insurance companies will send adjusters to check the condition of your home after you report a claim. There is no fee for this. Private adjusters usually are called in for disputes – they are independent, and you will have to pay them, usually a percentage of your settlement. In all cases, check the IDs of adjusters.

Disaster victims also may be solicited by lawyers who will offer to settle their insurance claims. This isn’t necessarily unscrupulous, but you shouldn’t have to pay up front. Most lawyers will work for a percentage of the claim – and it can be as much as 30%. Check out any lawyer seeking your business with the state or county bar association.

Again, don’t give out personal information – it could all be an identity theft play.

Crooked contractors

Finally, and maybe most importantly, be wary of contractors who come to your door and offer to inspect your damage.

One common variation of this involves offering to inspect your roof and file your claim directly with your insurance provider. The contractor then will demand a large down payment on the job from you – promising that your insurance provider will reimburse you – and then disappear with your money without doing any work.

Another variation on this is the contractor who demands you pay a fee to be “put on the list” or who offers a special price because he or she is “in the neighborhood.”

Many scam artists will report phony damage or make the damage worse than it is; others will do some repairs but with such cheap material that it will have to be redone – at the homeowner’s expense.

What can you do? Be cautious. Again, ask for identifications and licenses. Check out any references, and make use of the Better Business Bureau. When possible, use local contractors that you know. Get written estimates of the work to be done. Don’t be pressured to make a deal, and don’t pay the full price until the project is complete to your satisfaction.

It’s pathetic that scam artists try to take advantage of people who already are hurting, but it’s a fact. That’s all the more reason why you must keep your wits about you. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to delay a decision. Make sure you know what you’re doing every step of the way.


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