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Protect Against Disaster Relief Scams

After natural disasters, scammers may pose as contractors or FEMA officials to steal your money


spinner image two people embrace on the roof of a flooded home while hands reach to steal money from their pockets
Illustration: Cristina Spanò

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 the ’80s, the frequency and cost of natural disasters has increased. From 1980 to 1989, 33 natural disasters occurred at a cost of $218 billion. Most recently, the five years from 2019 to 2023 saw costs more than triple that amount, with 102 natural disasters at $616 billion.

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The year 2023 itself was historic, with 28 disasters causing $95 billion in losses. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a nonprofit that works to prevent and combat insurance fraud, estimates 10 percent of those losses, or $9.3 billion, was lost to post-disaster fraud.

“Scammers are also first responders,” warns Steve Weisman, law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and editor of Scamicide.com.

How disaster scams work

Some of these “storm chasers” take your money and run. Others overcharge for shoddy work. And since they lack local licensing, your homeowner’s insurance might not cover it.

Fake contractors. Two common scams are contractors that show up and use high-pressure sales tactics to push you to pay them money upfront for repairs, then disappear. Or they may tell you there’s damage to your roof when there isn’t.

“They’ll end up … being paid for a whole new roof, even though you don’t need one,” says Joe Brenckle, NICB director of public affairs. Brenckle recalls stories of scammers using hammers to smash holes in roofs to imitate hail damage.

Government, utility and insurance impostors. Criminals claim to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other government bodies and contact victims with promises of government grants, building permits or help speeding up insurance claims.

Scammers may claim to be with the electric company and offer to give you priority reconnection to the grid if you pay a deposit or fee. And some 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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  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
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Bogus charities. Disasters also unleash a torrent of phony 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.

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How to recognize a disaster scam

You can sniff out a scam by keeping a watchful eye out for the following:

On-the-spot offers. A contractor offers to do post-disaster work on the spot and asks for payment in advance.

Fees for service. A supposed government agent asks for payment to conduct an inspection or help you apply for disaster assistance. “No legitimate FEMA employee asks for any kind of funds,” says Weisman.

Unsolicited offers. You get a call from someone asking to verify your FEMA registration when you have not yet applied to the agency for assistance. Scammers attempt to steal your personal information to apply for assistance in your name or to redirect your payments to themselves.

Charity charlatans. 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

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

Prepare in advance. Before the disaster, it’s a good idea to get an understanding of what’s covered and how. Call your insurance company to clarify any coverage questions you may have. “They will have the bandwidth to spend more time talking to you and explaining your policy and offering tips and assistance to you,” says Brenckle.

Investigate before hiring a contractor. Check the vehicle of any contractor who shows up unsolicited for a business name, phone number and their state contractor license number. Get references. Look them up on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and other consumer review sites. “Don’t get pressured … verify that they’re insured, properly licensed, and there aren’t any complaints against them,” says Weisman.

Brenckle suggests doing your homework ahead of time. “Do your research and collect the names of companies that repair roofs, perform tree removal and other services in your area before you’re hit and keep them in a safe place.”

Call your insurance company. Before beginning any repairs, check with your insurer to make sure any work you are considering is covered and if you need to work with a preferred contractor or auto mechanic.

Make sure you’re working with genuine insurance agents. After some disasters, insurance companies will work with the state department of insurance to set up an “insurance village” with companies who have policy holders in the area, says Brenckle. As disaster sites can be chaotic, “Trust but verify. It should be safe, but get ID and verify their identity with the insurance company,” advises Weisman.

You should check their license with your state’s insurance department. The same is true of insurance adjusters.

Ask to see ID. FEMA agents do knock on doors to provide assistance to survivors, but genuine FEMA staff will have a government-issued laminated photo badge and be happy to show it to you. A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. You can call FEMA at 800-621-3362 or visit the closest FEMA Disaster Recovery Center to speak to staff.

Be careful who you give personal information to. Don’t give financial information to anyone claiming to be from FEMA. The agency follows a strict protocol when working with victims of a disaster. Once you apply for disaster assistance, either online or by phone, a FEMA representative will confirm you have a valid claim and will then request personal information.

“You always want to confirm with FEMA before you provide any kind of information,” says Weisman. You can call the FEMA helpline 800-621-3362 to confirm you are working with genuine FEMA staff.

Avoid agreeing to door-to-door solicitations for donations or repairs and processing insurance claims. Even if they seem legitimate, ask for more information, and never give money on the spot. “A good rule of thumb is ‘If you didn’t request it, reject it,’” says Brenckle. Most insurance companies will allow you to make an appointment with them.

Don’t assign insurance payments. Never sign over insurance checks to contractors or sign documents giving them rights to your insurance claims. “You don’t want to pay them ahead of time. You may want to assign the payment, but not until the work is done,” says Weisman.

Check the charity. Give to charities with a proven track record of disaster work. Use online resources like Charity NavigatorCharityWatchGuideStar or the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance to check an organization’s bona fides. Don’t take disaster solicitations on social media or crowdfunding sites at face value. Research the messenger before hitting the donate button.

And if you’re solicited by phone, says Weisman, “Hang up and go to charitynavigator.org and you can get the information on where to contact the real charity.”

What to do if you are targeted

The Department of Justice partners with law enforcement to create the National Center for Disaster Fraud. You can report scams by phone 866-720-5721 or online.

Call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721, FEMA’s Office of the Chief Security Officer at 866-223-0814 or write to FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov.

Make a report to the Federal Trade Commission online or call 877-382-4357.

The NICB will take information about insurance fraud at 800-TEL-NICB (800-835-6422) or online.

Contact your local state attorney general to report incidents.

More resources

FEMA’s fraud page has details on spotting suspicious activity and outlines how the agency communicates with survivors.

You can also use the FEMA Recovery app to apply for assistance.

Editor’s note: This article was updated with new statistics and expert advice.

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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.