How To Avoid Scams Aiming To Cash In On Hurricane Matthew Damage

Image courtesy of @fema

Hurricane Matthew is gone, but not without doing significant damage. As the recovery and rebuilding process begins, there will inevitably be unscrupulous scammers trying to cash in via fake charities, bogus offers of home repair, cybercrime, or through old-fashioned price gouging.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper says that scammers have already begun popping up, sending emails pretending to represent the power company.

“The fraudulent emails include a link that promises updated information on power outages but really installs malware on your device,” says Cooper. “For legitimate update on power outages, call your power company directly.”

Affected states are also on the lookout for price-gouging in areas ravaged by Matthew. South Carolina has multiple ways to report gouging, including a dedicated Twitter account. North Carolina has an online complaint portal, as does Florida. Georgia residents can file a complaint through the state’s Consumer Protection Unit website.

As we’ve covered before, two of the most common types of post-natural disaster scams involve fraudulent charities and unlicensed, unethical home repair services.

Several state attorneys general, including Georgia AG Sam Olens, have already warned residents about keeping an eye out for these con jobs.

Avoid Home Repair Scams

If your home has been damaged by the storm, you may be approached by supposed contractors offering to fix things up for you. But anyone can claim to be a contractor; that doesn’t mean they are one, or that they will actually do any of the work you pay for.

• Avoid complete strangers: Rather than deal with contractors who show up on your doorstep, check around to find one whose previous work can be vouched for — by friends, family, neighbors. If the contractor or repair specialist offers up references, be sure to check them out. As Olens notes, you can probably contact local trade organizations to find bona fide contractors in your area.

• License to fix: Many home repair specialists — contractors, electricians, plumbers — are licensed by their respective states. For example, in Georgia, the <a href="” target=”_blank”>Secretary of State’s website has a portal to verify professional licensees. Note that licensing requirements and disclosures vary by each state.

• Fake FEMA Endorsement: If a contractor claims to be endorsed of certified by FEMA, they are not telling the truth. “FEMA does not certify or approve contractors,” writes NC AG Cooper.

• Get it in writing: If a job runs long, over budget, or is not completed to your satisfaction, a verbal agreement won’t help you very much. Get it all in writing before any work begins. Additionally, get multiple bids from different contractors so that you can compare their estimates. Don’t assume that the lowest bid is your best bet.

• Where’s Your Insurance? The contractor should be able to provide you with proof of insurance so you know that you’re not liable if they fall off a ladder, or on the hook if their dumpster does damage to your property.

• No full payment up front: No honest contractor will demand full payment up front, and a scam artist will flee a job as soon as they’ve gotten all the money. Make sure you’ve agreed to a payment schedule that requires the work is completed before the contractor receives the full balance. Using a credit card instead of cash (or debit card) offers additional protections against scams.

How To Tell If A Charity Is A Scam

In advance of Matthew’s arrival, Florida AG Pam Bondi and crowdsourced donation site GoFundMe warned against potential pop-up “charities” that would try to take advantage of folks’ goodwill.

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”)

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