By Steve Tepper, CFP®, MBA
Whether you live on the hurricane-prone East Coast, earthquake and fire country on the West Coast, or Tornado Alley in between, natural disasters are always a risk. And the recent hurricanes in Florida and the Carolinas have highlighted that the risks don’t end when the winds and rains abate.
In the wake of any widespread disaster, the lives of people in affected areas can be turned upside down. From the lucky ones who have to deal with only a temporary power outage and maybe some light debris cleanup to those left homeless or possession-less or with lost loved ones, recovery can prove to be a much longer and more painful process than the storm itself.
On the plus side, many people and communities show their best selves following disasters, with people unaffected or less affected rushing to the aid of those in the direst need.
Many people, but not all.
For some, disasters represent an opportunity, and inevitably shams and scams pop up. Some are directed at survivors, and others are directed at charitably minded people who want to help.
If You Are Affected By a Disaster
If you are affected by a natural disaster, you should know the kinds of fraudsters who may be contacting you. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says on its website: “The most common post-disaster fraud practices include phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors and charging for free services.”
The bigger the disaster, the more repairs to buildings and other structures will be needed, and the more people in the construction trade will flock to the affected area. We should assume most of them are honest and reputable.
Others will come to town looking for a quick, and not so honest, cash grab. They’ll take your deposit money and never be seen again. They’ll sell you phony services. How can you tell the difference? They drive a pickup truck with lots of tools in it. They have a card with a licensed contractor number. And you may have no internet connection to vet them. But you have a gaping hole in your roof that you’d like to get plugged before the next rain comes.
How do you protect yourself? It can be tough depending on the level of damage to your property and surrounding infrastructure such as phone lines and cell towers.
If you have internet access: Use online resources such as Angie’s List, Yelp, the Better Business Bureau, and even Sun Florida to make sure a Florida business is, in fact, a company registered with the state.
If you have a phone line but no internet: Remember, that box you never put down that connects you to the universe is also, believe it or not, a phone! Sometimes you have no Wi-Fi or 4G, but you still can make a call. Do it! In fact, make several!
Contact your insurance company. You’ll want to do that as quickly as possible anyway to start your claim, and they may have a contractor they use and can vouch for, or can help you identify a reputable licensed contractor. If not, try local real estate agents and mortgage lenders. You might also try local building materials suppliers.
Additionally, you can contact the Better Business Bureau at 703-276-0100 to see if any complaints have been filed against the contractor.
If you have no phone or internet: Work with someone local, and verify they have an in-state license plate, if possible. This can be beneficial beyond lowering the risk you will be ripped off. Area contractors should be more familiar with local building codes and permit requirements. Even a reputable out-of-state contractor could end up costing you big if the work fails inspection and has to be redone.
Try to get several bids, and be wary of a bid that is substantially lower than all the others. That can be a teaser to get your down payment and run.
Don’t pay anything until you get a complete, detailed written contract. Do not pay with cash, and do not pay any more than a reasonable down payment until the work is completed. Don’t sign a contract with blank spaces because you don’t know what the contractor will put in those spaces after the contract is signed.
Last note: If someone in a FEMA shirt or jacket shows up, look for an identification badge with a photograph. Clothing, no matter how official looking, is not identification.
If You Aren’t Affected but Want to Help
At no time is American generosity more evident than following a tragic event like a disaster. Millions of dollars flow to charities that offer support and relief to victims. And that flood of money is an attractive target for scammers.
Detective DiCristofalo with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department recently forwarded information from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on nextdoor.com, warning of scams that appeared following Hurricane Florence’s devastating landfall in the Carolinas. No doubt the destruction left by Michael in the Florida Panhandle will produce more of the same.
Following Florence, websites popped up accepting donations on behalf of victims. Some claimed a relationship to well-known charitable organizations like the Red Cross, some made claims on how the money was going to be spent, and some didn’t provide any details about how the funds would be used. In any event, those sites gave no clear way to confirm their validity.
There are many resources online to check out a charitable organization, including the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and GuideStar. Go to these sites to research an organization. Don’t just trust the organization’s claims or messages posted on social media.
If you use your phone to donate via text, confirm the number with the source before you donate, and specifically designate how you want your donation spent. Otherwise, even with a reputable charity, the donation could end up in a general operating fund.
Finally, if you think you’ve identified a scam, report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.
“Top Hurricane Home Repair Scams” by Jamie Gold, www.forbes.com, September 14, 2018.
“Charity Scams Follow Hurricane’s Wake” by Detective DiCristofalo, Nextdoor.com, October 18, 2018.