If you’re a survivor of the recent flooding, tornadoes, and thunderstorms that have affected parts of the country, you’ve probably got your hands full getting your life back in order. Unfortunately, the aftermath of these disasters also brings out unscrupulous scam artists looking to prey on disaster victims. Some of the most common scenarios for fraud include home repair, credit fraud, and fraudulent charities for disaster victims.
When dealing with home repair contractors, be cautious. Before hiring anyone, contact your insurance company, which may require that an adjuster appraise the damages before you do any extensive repairs or rebuilding. You may also want to ask your insurance company to recommend reputable contractors. When the adjuster arrives, be sure to check his or her identification and license information. Some scams involve a purported public adjuster disappearing with a victim’s money after charging a large fee to handle the claim. Other potential scams could include filing false or inflated claims against your insurance policy; or worse, getting your personal information such as your Social Security number in order to commit identity theft.
Additionally, beware of contractors arriving in unmarked vehicles, and going door to door offering to help with repairs. Since most states require contractors to be licensed, ask to see a contractor’s license, and if presented, write down the license number.
If you have extensive work to be done, try to get several written bids, then get a written contract that includes all costs, a description of the work to be done, a schedule for completion, and any guarantees that the contractor offers. While it’s not uncommon to pay for a portion of the job up front it’s also not unheard of for a phony contractor to “take the money and run.” So don’t be lured into paying the entire cost before the job is completed, even if it’s to get a “great deal.” And never pay cash; use a check or credit card.
Surviving a disaster may leave you desperate for cash. Disaster victims may get a phone call offering a “guaranteed” loan or credit card at very low rates to help with the money crunch. While the rates for the purported loan or credit may be low, these offers usually require an up-front security or processing fee. Once paid, neither the loan nor credit card is ever delivered. There are some legitimate companies that do offer loans or credit to disaster victims. Most of these genuine companies will not “guarantee” credit before you apply, and they won’t ask for a credit card number, bank account information, or Social Security number over the phone. And most reputable companies will operate through the mail or via the Internet, allowing you to do some research first. If the company says its offer is a “one time deal” that you can only take advantage of over the phone, chances are it’s a scam.
You don’t have to be a victim of a natural disaster to be caught in a related scam. You may want to help disaster victims by making donations to legitimate relief agencies, but there are also scammers looking to prey on your sympathies. Be leery of solicitors going door to door, even if they show credentials. If the solicitation is over the phone, ask for written information about the charity, including name, address, and website if available, and check with your state for information on the charity. Some phony charities will use a name similar to but not exactly the same as a well-known legitimate charity, so do some research before making that donation.
It is an unfortunate fact that there are individuals out there looking to prey on those who are the most vulnerable. Be cautious–if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. A little common sense can help you avoid becoming victimized a second time.