By Kathy Stokes - Director, Fraud Prevention Programs at AARP Fraud Watch Network
Disasters can result in neighbors, friends and even strangers helping each other through difficult times. But disasters can also bring out the worst. Take scammers, for whom others’ misfortune is a chance to make a fast buck. The U.S. Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) has received more than 100,000 fraud complaints in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, explosions and chemical spills. And the agency has only been around for five years.
Scammers’ tactics are far-ranging, but here are some things to be on the lookout for if you find yourself affected by a disaster:
- Federal or local government agency impersonators, calling with offers to help you apply for disaster assistance or conduct an inspection for a fee.
- "Contractors” showing up at your door, offering to do post-disaster repairs with leftover supplies from the last job, or for a steep discount if you commit right away and pay upfront.
- Fundraisers urging you to donate for disaster relief.
Scammers are successful because they are good at what they do. They know when we are affected by a disaster we will be in a heightened emotional state, and that means our ability to think logically goes out the window.
Know this – no government agency will charge a fee to help you get disaster assistance or for an inspection. Legitimate contractors won’t require you to make a quick decision or push you to pay upfront. Always check out charities before donating to make sure your hard-earned money goes to deserving charities and not into scammers’ pockets.
To avoid scammers, hang up on callers claiming to be from the government (or call the agency back on a number you can verify). Even under the stress of disaster recovery, get at least three written estimates for any contracting work, and check references before hiring. And research a charity before donating; www.charitynavigator.org and www.give.org are two good resources.
These are just some examples of the types of scams to look out for following disasters. To learn more about disaster scams and how you can spot and avoid them, visit the AARP Fraud Watch Network page on disaster scams. If you are unsure whether something is legitimate or if you or a loved one has fallen victim to a scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360, where trained staff and volunteers can provide information and support.