Fraud has become a serious problem wherever and whenever weather disasters strike. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), many disaster victims have been scammed, and many perpetrators have landed in federal prison. While communities, aid organizations, and even fellow victims pull together to help and support one another, other unscrupulous individuals or groups take advantage of these tragic events by preying on its victims. Take steps now to help better protect your finances and personal information before, during, and after a disaster.
The Many Faces of Disaster-Related Fraud
According to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF), disaster-related scams reported to their agency and other law enforcement include:
- Impersonation of federal law enforcement officials
- Identity theft
- Fraudulent claims made to insurance companies or the federal government
- Bogus solicitations for charitable donations
- Fraudulent investment opportunities
- Price gouging
- Contractor fraud
Fraudsters may initiate contact by phone, mail, email, text, or in person, and, according to experts, they don’t lack imagination when it comes to the myriad of ways they attempt to scam their victims.
- Phony property inspectors or building contractors may go to the victim’s home and tell them it is unsafe, or they may actually create damage in order to get the work.
- Unlicensed contractors or outright scammers may demand payment upfront but not do or finish the work, or they may charge over-inflated prices.
- Scammers may create fake charities, sometimes using names that are very similar to known and trusted organizations in order to trick victims.
- Thieves may try to register for aid through FEMA using stolen identities.
- Fraudsters may launch recorded phone calls, called robocalls, with promises of government grants, flood insurance, or help with assistance applications.
Steps to Help Detect and Avoid Disaster-Related Scams
Fortunately, there are steps you can take before, during, and after a natural disaster in order to help better protect yourself.
- Organize and safely store important documents – Place important documents in a lockable, fireproof file box, and/or rent a safe deposit box. Among the contents to consider are: a household inventory list, emergency contacts, health insurance information, insurance policy numbers and phone numbers, originals and copies of important financial and family records, a list of creditors or financial institutions and account numbers, copies of current prescriptions, Social Security cards, and pet records. The FTC provides a list of recommended items to store and where to store them.
- Be aware of scams in your area – FEMA often creates “Rumor Control” web pages to stop the spread of misinformation and help protect disaster victims against scams. To find your local rumor control page on FEMA’s website, search the name of the disaster with the word “rumors.” Your state attorney general may also have information about scams in your state.
- Never respond to requests for personal or financial information – Do not respond to phone calls, texts, or other requests for personal or financial information. Disaster victims should only need to provide personal information during the initial application process for FEMA assistance and when communicating with a verified FEMA official to follow up on the application. Representatives from state or federal disaster assistance agencies will not call or text requesting financial account information.
- Confirm the identity of government officials, insurance, and bank representatives, and others – Scammers can fake their title or even their uniform. They may impersonate a government employee, insurance adjuster, law enforcement official, bank employee, or other trusted individual. Always ask for identification, and call the organization directly to confirm that the person works there.
- Do your homework on potential contractors – Use only licensed local contractors who provide reliable references. Ideally, get a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member, or, if that’s not possible, check the organization with your state and local consumer protection offices. Before making a hire, ask contractors for their identification, license, proof of insurance, and references. Always pay for repair work by check or credit card for your records, and don’t make the final payment until the work is done to your satisfaction.
- Know what to expect from government representatives – Federal and state workers always carry identification badges and will not ask for or accept money. There is no fee to apply for or to get disaster assistance from FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration, or the state. All FEMA representatives, including home inspectors, will carry a laminated photo ID. If you’re unsure if someone is truly a FEMA representative, call FEMA directly at 1-800-621-3362. If a FEMA inspector comes to your damaged home, he or she will already have your FEMA registration number and will ask you to verify your identity. Keep your FEMA registration number safe and private.
- Validate charitable organizations before you give – The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to do their research before clicking the “Donate” button to make a charitable contribution. Learn these seven tips to avoid charity scams.
- Consider a credit freeze or fraud alert – Consider further protecting your identity and credit record by placing a credit freeze or lock on your credit reports, which restricts access to them, with certain exceptions, for the purposes of opening new accounts in your name. Also, consider placing a fraud alert, which is a notice placed on your credit reports that encourages lenders and creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity before extending credit in your name. If your credit, ATM, or debit cards are lost or stolen, report it to the card issuer If you don’t have the card company’s phone number, call 1-800-555-1212 to get it.
- Monitor your credit – FEMA recommends monitoring your credit reports for any suspicious accounts or changes. If you believe someone may be using your personal or financial information, report it to the FTC through their website at IdentityTheft.gov.
More Information Is Available from Government Agencies
If you believe you have been the victim of disaster-related fraud, call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721. In addition, the following government agencies provide more information relating to disaster-related fraud.
- FEMA offers a fact sheet Beware of Identity Thieves and Scam Artists After a Disaster.
- The Federal Trade Commission provides resources on Dealing with Weather Emergencies.
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created a web page on How Do I Avoid Scams and Fraud After a Disaster?
FEMA provides extensive resources on general disaster assistance on its website.