Protecting Yourself from Fraud after an Emergency
In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, thousands of Americans who live in Florida or along the Eastern seaboard are struggling to restore their homes and businesses after severe flooding, wind damage, and structural damage caused by rain, downed trees, and flying debris. Sadly, while heroes often seem prevalent following a massive natural disaster or emergency, these are also the times when it is especially easy for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of desperate people. Whether you live in an area affected by the storm or not, it is wise to be aware of the different types of opportunistic crooks and the tactics they use to prey on people in their most vulnerable times.
North Carolina news source WWAY TV reports that state and federal officials took the opportunity after Hurricane Matthew swept out to sea to warn residents of the most common types of post-disaster fraud and how to avoid them. These officials are also on the lookout for any suspicious activity and have pledged to enact harsh punishments for those convicted of scamming hurricane victims.
“In a time of great need, it may be easy to accept help offered, but residents must be aware of the potential for fraud,” said Governor Pat McCrory. “It will not be tolerated. I have directed the State Bureau of Investigation to assist local law enforcement in investigating complaints and to take criminal action against scammers.”
There are a number of signs that may help tip a wary consumer off when they have been approached by a scammer looking to profit from post-disaster fraud:
Be Cautious of Fees
Federal and state workers will never ask for money to help disaster victims. Additionally, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other federal or state bureaus do not require an application fee from those seeking disaster assistance
Ask for ID
Even if a person (or team of people) looks and acts legitimate, always ask to see identification before giving them any of your personal information. Scammers may go to great lengths to appear to be official agents, but real state and federal workers will always be able to identify themselves as such. In fact, in disaster situations, it is common for officials to wear ID badges on their clothing.
Get Credentials and References
One of the most common forms of post-disaster fraud is phony inspectors or unlicensed or unqualified contractors or builders who may offer services at a discounted rate. These individuals may take your money for substandard work, take your money without doing any work, or increase your liability by making unsafe repairs. Always ask to see a professional’s credentials and consider checking them out with the local Better Business Bureau. It’s also wise to ask for references, written estimates, proof of insurance, and a contract with a guarantee.
Once you have had work done to your home or property, it is wise to invest in a third-party inspection to ensure that all work was done correctly and is up to code.
Never Pay Cash
Scammers often ask for up-front cash payments for their services. Never do this. If you write a check or use a credit card, you will retain a paper trail and the right to contest charges or cancel payments if necessary.
In every state, there are licensing boards for general contractors and other professionals who may provide necessary services after a disaster. Following events like the recent devastating hurricane, there are also emergency hotlines and help centers to help residents obtain specialized assistance and advice. These are essential resources which can help those in need connect with trustworthy service providers.
Unfortunately, in the panic following a natural disaster like Hurricane Matthew, many people rush to recover as quickly as possible without conducting research or taking precautions which may protect them from consumer fraud. When this happens, an experienced consumer fraud lawyer can help victims track down scammers and hold them fully accountable for their actions. To learn more about how a consumer fraud lawyer can help you, please contact us for a free legal consultation.