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After Disaster Strikes, Don’t Let Down Your Guard

Crooks behind fake charities — and phony repair schemes — want your cash

A woman looks over damage to a neighborhood caused by Hurricane Ida on August 30, 2021 in Kenner, Louisiana. Ida

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A woman looks over damage to a neighborhood caused by Hurricane Ida on August 30, 2021 in Kenner, Louisiana.

En español | Hurricane Ida pummeled coastal Louisiana on Sunday on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, leaving New Orleans without power as rescuers searched for people trapped by the storm. Downgraded to a tropical storm, Ida was expected to lash portions of Mississippi, Alabama and other states as it headed toward the mid-Atlantic region.

Amid the pandemic, millions of people have been affected by natural disasters this summer: a massive earthquake hit Haiti on Aug. 14, and in the U.S., wildfires still are raging in several western states.

Brings out the best — and the worst

It’s been said that hurricanes, fires, earthquakes and other catastrophes bring out the best in people — and the worst.

Amid the devastation, there are two things to remember: Criminals capitalize on hard times by setting up bogus charities. And con artists promise help with cleanup and repair work but don’t deliver. 

The Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, offers guidance on how to donate wisely and avoid charity scams.


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Choose a charity wisely

If you choose to give a donation, choose wisely. Regrettably, criminals chase headlines, set up bogus charities and take the money and run. That’s true even if there’s not a disaster in the news.

The Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, offers guidance on how to donate wisely and avoid charity scams.

Here are more tips from AARP on avoiding charity scams:

  1. Be skeptical of anyone promising immediate clean-up and debris removal. 
    • Some may quote outrageous prices, demand an upfront payment or lack the skills needed.
  2. Check them out. 
    • Before you pay, ask for identification, licenses and proof of insurance. Don't believe promises that aren't in writing.
  3. Never pay by wire transfer, gift card or cash. 
    • And never make a final payment until the work is done and you're satisfied.
  4. Guard your personal information. 
  5. Remember: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not charge application fees to apply for funds. 
    • If someone wants money to help you qualify for FEMA relief, it's probably a scam.
  6. Be wise to rental listing scams. 
    • Steer clear of people who tell you to wire money or ask for a security deposit or rent before you've even met or signed a lease.
  7. Spot disaster-related charity scams. 
    • Scammers often will try to make a quick profit from the misfortune of others. Here's more on donating wisely and avoiding bogus charities.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the National Center for Disaster Fraud was created so the Department of Justice and law enforcement and regulatory agencies could improve the detection, prevention, investigation and prosecution of fraud related to natural and man-made disasters. The center also advocates for the victims of such frauds.

The center’s Gulf Coast headquarters is in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and its hotline, 866-720-5721, was not accepting calls Aug. 30 because inclement weather made it unsafe for staff members, according to a recorded message. It said calls will be answered when employees return.

4 Ways to Avoid a Charity Scam

Editor's Note: This article was originally was published on August 28, 2020 and was updated with new information regarding this year's recent disasters.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago TribuneU.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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