As Floods Ravage Louisiana, Here’s How To Avoid Home Repair & Charity Scams

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As you have no doubt already heard, flood waters are wreaking havoc in Louisiana, displacing many thousands of residents and doing untold damage to their homes. When the waters eventually recede and people return home, there will inevitably be scammers ready to take advantage of their situation; just as there will be bogus charities and other fraudsters waiting to cash in on the good will of other Americans.

Sadly, we’ve been down this road before, following hurricanes and other disasters.

In fact, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has already released a guide [PDF] on how to avoid post-disaster repair scams, including: get multiple bids; check that the “contractor” is licensed through the Louisiana Licensing Board for Contractors; make sure the contractor has insurance; get (and keep) everything in writing; and never pay cash.

For displaced residents looking for a place to live, there will be scammers posting fake rental listings, requiring that the new tenant wire them money in advance of seeing the place — often in the guise of a “credit check.”

Never rent a home or apartment from someone you don’t see in person, says Landry, and when looking for an apartment never wire money or give out your bank account or credit card information over the phone or internet.

One aspect of flood damage that often goes overlooked is the large number of cars damaged by the rising waters. They may be made functional again, but could be harboring hidden problems. Landry advises anyone buying a used car in the area to have it checked for flood damage.

If you think you’ve been the victim of a home repair or other scam, contact your state’s attorney general’s office. The National Association of Attorneys General has a full list of AGs for each state and territory, along with links to their respective sites.

In Louisiana, victims of home repair scams and price gouging can call the Landry’s office at 1-800-351-4889.

How To Tell If A Charity Is A Scam

There are certain red-flag behaviors that should alert you to the likelihood you’re being duped. The anti-scam folks at the Federal Trade Commission have this checklist for dealing with a possible charity to make sure you’re not getting hosed:

Don’t be shy about asking who wants your money. If you’re solicited for a donation, ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who they work for, and the percentage of your donation that will go to the charity and to the fundraiser. If you don’t get a clear answer — or if you don’t like the answer you get — consider donating to a different organization.

Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If not, you may be dealing with a scam artist.

Ask for written information about the charity. This includes its full name, address, and telephone number.

Contact the office that regulates charitable organizations and charitable solicitations in your state, The National Association of State Charity Officials has contact information for regulators in each state available on its website.
Your state office also can verify how much of your donation goes to the charity, and how much goes to fundraising and man­agement expenses.

You also can check out charities with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and GuideStar.

Trust your gut and check your records.
Callers may try to trick you by thanking you for a pledge you didn’t make. If you don’t remember making the donation or don’t have a record of your pledge, resist the pressure to give.

Be wary of charities that spring up overnight.
This is especially true after natural disasters. They may make a compelling case for your money, but as a practical matter, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get your donation to the affected area or people.

Watch out for similar sounding names.
Some phony charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization you know to check it out.

Be wary of charities eager to collect cash.
If they say they are sending a courier or offering overnight delivery service to collect your donation immediately, you have to wonder whether the charity is legitimate.

Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible.”
Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.

Do not send or give cash donations.
Cash can be lost or stolen. For security and tax record purposes, it’s best to pay by credit card. If you’re thinking about giving online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.