5 Disaster scams to avoid this hurricane season
BATON ROUGE (NBC33) — (BATON ROUGE, LA) May 30 — When disaster strikes, fraud can increase in Louisiana. June 1 marks the start of the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season, and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell wants to make sure your home, family and personal identity remain safe in the event a storm threatens the state.
“When a storm blows in, fraud does too,” cautions Caldwell. “Hurricanes can cause much more than physical damage. Unfortunately, hurricane season is also a time in which unscrupulous con-artists can try to capitalize off of your misfortune. In emergency situations, it pays to be on the lookout for scams.”
Caldwell urges Louisiana residents to recognize and avoid these five common disaster-related scams:
1. Identity Theft
Make sure to safeguard your personal information in the event of an evacuation.
Making a last minute decision to leave one's home is always hard and can have unintended consequences if a homeowner does not take precautions to safeguard personal documents and other sensitive information. Often in the wake of natural disasters, papers containing personally identifiable information are misplaced or fall into the wrong hands, complicating the recovery process and putting citizens at risk for identity theft.
When evacuating, it is important to take your sensitive personal documents with you or put them in a secure location such as a safe deposit box. We must always assume that our personal items may not be there when we go back to our homes either due to disaster destruction or poor security.
Such personal items may include your passport, credit cards, checkbooks, car registration, home title, insurance contracts, college degrees, health insurance and Social Security cards, and birth and marriage certificates.
If you will be away from your home for an extended period of time due to forced evacuation or home repairs in the aftermath of a storm, it is wise to forward mail delivery with the United States Postal Service to your temporary address in order to ensure your items don’t get into the hands of an identity thief.
Many scammers will steal your mail in order to get personal account numbers and apply for credit cards, all in your good name. To report mail theft, contact the U.S Postal Inspection Service.
2. Price Gouging
During a declared state of emergency, report price gouging to your local law enforcement officials, district attorney, or the attorney general’s office.
Price gouging occurs when a seller prices goods or services much higher than is reasonable under market conditions. The price gouging statute prohibits the raising of prices above the pre-emergency levels when there is no accompanying national or regional market commodity shortage. This means that sellers of gasoline and petroleum products, hotels, motels, and retailers are prohibited from raising prices during this state of emergency unless they incur a verifiable increase in the price they have to pay as part of doing business.
It’s important to remember that not all price increases are considered price gouging. Product shortages, rig and refinery shut downs, and global markets can all cause the price of goods and services to increase. These verifiable, market influenced cost increases may lawfully be passed on to the consumer.
Suspected price gouging should be reported to your local law enforcement officials, district attorney, or the Louisiana Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 800-351-4889.
3. Phony Emergency Response Officials
Watch out for con-artists that pose as government officials or insurance adjusters.
Scammers take advantage of disaster victims by posing as government agency employees or insurance adjusters. In the process of interviewing the victims, they request personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers and bank information in order to steal their identity.
If you are a disaster victim, you must confirm the identity of anyone who contacts you purporting to be from a governmental agency or insurance company. Ask for details in writing and be wary when the term “government approved” is used.
Do not give out any information until you have checked them out by contacting the actual agency or insurance company that they claim to represent. Do not give cash on the spot to any individual that shows up claiming to be an insurance agent or disaster aid worker.
4. Fake Charities
Before donating, check to make sure the charity is legitimate.
The widespread use of social media provides fertile ground for scammers to exploit the generosity of Louisiana citizens wishing to donate to the victims of natural disasters by almost instantly creating the look and mission statement of a legitimate disaster-relief campaign.
Use caution before giving credit card numbers over the phone or online. If you’re not sure whether a charity is legitimate, check up on charities by going to www.guidestar.org to find out if the charity is actually an IRS 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization.
Contact the Attorney General’s Charitable Registration section, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Corporations Database and the Better Business Bureau before you donate.
Be skeptical of unsolicited email requests for donations, even if they appear to be from a legitimate charity. Many charities, including the Red Cross, do not typically ask you for donations through e-mail; instead go to the actual website in your browser to make a donation. Never give your personal information in an e-mail.
Make your check payable to the organization, never to an individual. Choose established charitable organizations that have a history of assisting in disasters. Be careful of similar-sounding names. Fraudulent charities may use names that closely resemble the name of established, legitimate charitable organizations.
5. Home Repair Scams
Before allowing someone to repair your damaged home, verify their credentials.
If your home is damaged by a natural disaster, you will most likely be in the market for a reputable contractor, tree removal or mold remediation service. Even in such a situation as a disaster, it is still important to obtain more than one estimate for repairs and to check on the qualifications and credentials of anyone working on your home.
You can contact local consumer agencies for reviews, and contact the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors at 800-256-1392 to make sure the contractor is licensed, registered and to see if the contractor has any complaints or violations on record. Find out the contractor’s address and verify it. Get the name of the contractor’s insurance company.
You will also want to ask for references of satisfied customers and contact those individuals to examine the work done. Where a down payment is required, it should not exceed 10% of the total price. Always get a guarantee in writing and keep a signed, legible copy of the contract in a safe place. Pay by check or money order and keep all receipts.
To report contractor fraud, charity scams or other disaster-related fraud, contact the Louisiana Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-351-4889 or visit www.agbuddycaldwell.com.