En español | Hurricanes Ian and Fiona are just the latest of many devastating natural disasters that have pummeled areas of the U.S. in recent years. Those events are scary enough on their own, but survivors of such weather emergencies face yet another threat after the storms and flooding recede: becoming the target of a scam.
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Criminals often capitalize on hard times by setting up bogus charities. And con artists promise help with cleanup and repair work but don’t deliver.
“In 2021 alone, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters,” notes Kathy Stokes, director of Fraud Prevention Programs at AARP. “Each one was a prime opportunity for criminal actors, whether it’s fake contractors, FEMA [The Federal Emergency Management Agency] impostors, or fake charities that divert needed recovery funds into their own pockets.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a warning to recent hurricane victims that “scammers may approach you to clean up debris, pose as a government official or offer to help you get aid for a fee.” The FTC’s advice: “Walk away from anyone who demands personal information or money up-front. That’s always a scam.”
More advice on avoiding post-disaster scams
1. If you choose to give a donation, choose wisely. The FTC offers guidance on how to avoid charity scams. This advice includes being aware of criminals’ tactics, such as using names similar to legitimate charities and making “lots of vague and sentimental claims” with no specifics about how your donation will be used.
2. Be skeptical of anyone promising immediate clean-up and debris removal. Some may quote outrageous prices, demand an upfront payment, but lack the skills needed — or have no intention of following through with the work. 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. Only scammers will say they’re some type of government official and then demand money or your credit card, bank account number or Social Security number.
5. Don’t pay anyone to help you qualify for FEMA relief. Remember that FEMA does not charge application fees to apply for funds. If someone wants money to help you do so, it’s probably a scam.
6. If you suspect that you’ve been targeted by a disaster-related scam, report it. Contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF), using the 24-hour disaster fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or through the NCDF’s web complaint form.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Aug. 28, 2020, and was updated with new information regarding recent disasters.
Katherine Skiba is the former scams and fraud reporter for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Christina Ianzito covers fraud and breaking news for aarp.org, and is the books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine.