In addition to the pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters seem to have plagued the U.S. with a particular vengeance this year. These terrible events have left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, scared, and just barely able to get by.
Immediately following such events, scammers can abound to play off victims’ fears and feelings of desperation. For most people, it can be difficult to understand the heartlessness of such an industry. But scammers don’t see victims as people; they just see dollar signs.
Under the general umbrella of natural disaster scams, there are a few specific approaches that scammers may take. They include:
Clean-Up Crews & Contractors
In the interest of cleaning up and trying to get back to normal as quickly as possible after a natural disaster, some homeowners can fall victim to clean-up scams. In this case, a supposed clean-up crew or general contractor will offer you their services.
They may promise fast clean-up or repairs, but for a very high price. Beyond exorbitant fees, they may require payment upfront (often in the form of cash, gift cards, or wire transfers) and then never complete the work. Or they may not be licensed or insured to do such work.
To keep from being taken advantage of, make sure you check a contractor’s or crew’s qualifications before agreeing to anything. Get promises of work in writing. And never pay the entire amount for the work upfront; pay for it only after it’s completed to your satisfaction.
If your home was damaged or destroyed in a natural disaster, you may have to find temporary housing until something more permanent is found or rebuilt. This need could leave you open to falling for rental scams.
With these kinds of scams, you may see a listing for a good place. However, the supposed landlord won’t let you see the property in person first. Or they require security deposits before a lease or rental agreement is signed.
This property might not exist. Or, if it does, the supposed “landlord” is not actually authorized to list a property. Again, be sure to get things in writing before any exchange of money. And as a prospective renter, you are well within your rights to see a property in person before signing or agreeing to anything.
The scenes of devastation after a fire, hurricane, or other natural disaster can’t help but stir the heart. Unfortunately, scammers know this and so will play on people’s sympathies to score some quick cash.
It could be as simple as a person standing on a street corner asking for cash to help pay for their home’s repairs. Or scammers could set up donation opportunities online on sites like GoFundMe. They could even go so far as to create a fake charity website to gather donations.
Before you start giving your money away, you should do some due diligence to make sure that it’s going where you want. If dealing with an individual, you can try to verify the person’s identity and address using a dedicated online people search. When it comes to a charitable organization, you can verify its legitimacy by researching it on one of several online charity watchdog sites. (Also with charities, you want to make sure that they’re spending money wisely. Watchdog sites can help you find out this kind of information as well.)
FEMA has funds allocated to help victims of natural disasters get back on their feet. You have to apply for it, which is where scammers often step in. You may run across a fraudster who promises to help you get funds and/or expedite an application on your behalf for a fee.
FEMA never charges fees for applications. So, if someone tries to tell you otherwise, you can be pretty sure that it’s a scam.
If you’ve been affected by a natural disaster, of course you want it all to be over with. But don’t make decisions based out of desperation. Take time to consider what you’re being offered. By recognizing scammers for what they are, you can protect yourself and keep from becoming a victim all over again.
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