Ways to avoid scammers who exploit natural disasters

David Pollino
Fraud Prevention

It’s a sad fact: Fraudsters see opportunity in the wake of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and fires.

Fire-damaged room inside an empty house, with views out from broken windows and into two other damaged rooms.Unfortunately we’re seeing it in the aftermath of the deadly wildfires in Northern California that, in addition to killing dozens of people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in October. As people there try to recover and rebuild, scammers may try to take advantage by impersonating insurance or utility representatives or by offering charity or FEMA assistance, among other schemes.

Warnings of fraudulent activity aimed at homeowners and business owners also increased after the hurricanes that devastated other parts of the United States in late summer/early fall.

To help avoid these scams, please consider the following cautions …

  • Beware of phishing and spam emails. Do not open attachments or respond to emails from unknown senders, and do not share confidential details such as PIN numbers, credit card or bank account info – even if the email appears to be from trusted source, such as a bank, utility company, or repair professional. Read more on possible red flags and tips to avoid these scams.
  • Beware of visitors, phone calls, or texts seeking sensitive information. Ask anybody claiming to be from FEMA, SBA, or other government agency to show an identification badge. In the case of a visitor claiming to be a home improvement contractor, ask for references and check them out. Don’t pay an advance fee for grants, inspections, or help filling out applications.
  • Watch out for bogus disaster donation requests. Well-meaning folks who want to help alleviate victims’ suffering can be easy targets for criminals who set up fake websites for donations and advertise them on popular sites. Contact relevant service organizations on your own, rather than clicking a link that may be fraudulent. Remember that legitimate charities will not aggressively approach people to donate. See my previous post on this topic for more tips.
  • Some insurance agents may be fake. Contact your insurance company immediately to report the loss, and make sure to take pictures to document the damage as accurately as possible. Read more tips in this article.
  • Know the red flags of fraudulent contractors. These may include not having a local office or phone number, not willing to provide references, and requesting a full cash payment in advance. Learn more from the Better Business Bureau.

If you suspect fraud relating to any of the scenarios above, you can call the FEMA disaster fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or contact the FBI. You can also find more tips and protection tools at the Bank of the West Security Center.

 

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