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Disaster Scams

Disasters can bring out the best in people, as neighbors and strangers alike roll up their sleeves and open their wallets to help those picking up the pieces. They also bring out the worst in scammers, for whom others’ misfortune is just a chance to make a fast buck. Since it was founded in 2005, the U.S. Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) has fielded more than 95,000 complaints involving more than 100 events, including hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, explosions and chemical spills.

Disaster frauds often prey directly on those struggling to recover from extreme weather. Dubious contractors descend on affected communities, offering quick, cheap fixes for battered homes and businesses or rapid removal of debris, for payment up front. Some of these “storm chasers” are merely shady and overcharge for shoddy work. (And since they lack local licensing, your homeowner’s insurance might not cover it.) Others are outright scammers who take your money and run. There’s more on avoiding home repair scams elsewhere in AARP’s Fraud Resource Center.

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In another “post-disaster” con, fraudsters claiming to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other government bodies contact victims with promises of grants, building permits or help speeding up insurance claims, if you pay a deposit or fee. A genuine FEMA inspector will not ask for money or personal information. Scammers may also pose as public insurance adjusters, charging high fees for doubtful damage assessments or directing you to disreputable contractors with whom they’re in league.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Disasters also unleash a torrent of bogus charities, which get busy pumping out calls, text, emails and social media posts soliciting donations for relief work. As hurricanes near landfall, scammers snap up internet domains featuring the storm’s name and words like “help” and “relief.” Other faux fundraisers imply a connection to well-known aid organizations like the Red Cross or Oxfam. You’ll find more on spotting charity scams in the Fraud Resource Center.

Don’t let fraud compound a disaster. Take these precautions to ensure you are getting, or giving, the right kind of help.

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Warning Signs

  • A contractor offers to do post-disaster work on the spot and asks for payment in advance.
  • A supposed government agent asks for payment to do an inspection or help you apply for disaster assistance.
  • You get a call from someone asking to verify your FEMA registration when you have not yet applied to the agency for assistance.
  • A disaster charity’s name or web address resembles but does not quite match that of an established aid organization, and its website offers few details about it (for example, its leadership, physical location or history of relief work).

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Do due diligence before hiring a contractor. Look for a business name and phone number on their vehicle. Get references, look up their Better Business Bureau (BBB) profile and check that they are licensed with your state. Make sure they carry liability and workmen’s compensation coverage.
  • Do get detailed written estimates for repairs. Read contracts thoroughly before signing, and keep copies of all paperwork.
  • Do make sure, before repair work starts, that your insurance company will cover it.
  • Do verify that a public adjuster seeking to handle your claim is licensed. You can check with your state’s insurance department.
  • Do ask to see a purported FEMA representative’s official ID. A real agent will have a laminated photo badge. A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. If you want to double-check, call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362.
  • Do give to charities with a proven track record of disaster work. Use online resources like Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, GuideStar or the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance to check an organization’s bona fides.
  • Don’t agree to door-to-door solicitations for donations or repairs. Even if they seem legitimate, ask for more information rather than giving money on the spot.
  • Don’t sign over insurance checks to contractors or sign documents giving them rights to your insurance claims. Pay them yourself, preferably by credit card.
  • Don’t give personal or financial data to someone claiming to be from FEMA. The agency will ask for Social Security and bank account numbers when you apply for disaster assistance online or by phone, but a FEMA representative will not do so in person.
  • Don’t donate by text before checking with the charity to confirm the number.
  • Don’t take disaster solicitations on social media or crowdfunding sites at face value. Research the messenger before hitting the “donate” button.
  • Don’t be swayed by vague, sentimental appeals. Ask for specifics about how the charity helps disaster victims.
  • Don’t click links or open attachments in email and social media solicitations unless you’re sure who sent it. They could be delivery systems for malware.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.