Natural Disasters Open Up Scamming Season: How to avoid their tricks

The U.S. is dealing with a very busy hurricane season in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate have made landfall and created chaos across the South and Puerto Rico. Tragedies like these create a sense of overwhelmedness and frustration, but you are not alone. The recovery process is already making progress, but the bulk of rebuilding is yet to come.

Friends and families are working with their communities to get each other back into their homes. As others come to your side to offer you aid and assistance, you should be vigilant against criminal activity. Financial crimes occur after natural disasters, and it isn’t fair to the people who suffer a major storm to then become victims of a scam. Fraudulent villains try to take advantage of unsuspecting and trusting homeowners.

Sometimes referred to as “storm chasers”, these scammers infiltrate areas devastated by the storm and try to sell their services, demanding the money first. Their entire act is to pressure stressed homeowners into making a quick decision, and although you want the recovery to happen swiftly, it’s better to proceed with caution.

Don’t let strangers pressure you into a signing a rushed repair contract or to put money down first. Scammers will leave with your money and never come back. It’s also okay to get a second or third opinion before having contract work done, and never sign a blank contract. Paying in installments is a safe way to ensure the work gets completed and helps the homeowner have some negotiating power.

FEMA and the Better Business Bureau do have several suggestions to prevent professional con-artists from taking advantage of your family in this vulnerable time:

  • If who you’re talking to is an actual state or federal worker, they will not ask money or take it if you offer. FEMA staff are required to give assistance, provide inspections, or even help fill out applications free of charge. If someone baits you with promises of a quicker turnaround for money, they should not be trusted.
  • FEMA employees are required to carry official ID badges, so don’t go off of clothing alone—it’s easy for a scammer to access FEMA shirts or jackets. A legitimate employee or contractor will have an ID photo card. This also goes for NFIP authorized adjusters, whose badges will also have the types of claims they can adjust.
  • Trust your instincts: if an emergency management official pressures you to make a quick decision, makes you uncomfortable, or you are unsure about their position, you can contact local law enforcement.
  • It’s best, as with any home improvement project, to get the opinions of three different companies. Storm Chasers will attempt to force your hand on the decision before you’re ready—another sign that they’re scammers.
  • Seek the opinions of past clients who had their jobs done at least a year in the past. You may be able to go and even check their work in person.
  • You can find reviews of the business on, which will include complaints, licensing, and even government action.
  • You can ask for proof of insurance from a contractor or even their insurance company to ensure that they’re legally registered to do the work.
  • Written contracts are the way to go. Having the price, materials, and timeline all down on a tangible agreement can go a long way if something goes wrong. Make sure these contracts are as detailed as possible.
  • Review the contracts thoroughly. Pressure to sign a contract can be a sign of a scam, and you should not sign a contract with an Assignment of Benefits, which will force you to give up the rights given to you through your insurance policy.

Homeowners should do their homework before committing to a contractor, and so should prospective car buyers. More than 600,000 vehicles were damaged in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and crooks are planning to profit.

Vehicle sales are sure to jump this quarter as insurance money comes in for new purchases, and car dealers are rushing to meet demand. The storm damaged approximately 366,000 vehicles on dealership parking lots, and of those, 200,000 were in the worst-hit areas.

“Most of the vehicles are sold to parts companies who dismantle them and resell usable parts that were not damaged by the flooding,” the National Insurance Crime Bureau explains. But that’s not the only fate to befall flooded vehicles.

Criminals are using VIN identification on vehicles to get new titles issued for flooded vehicles. Unknowing buyers purchase the broken vehicle thinking the title is clean and the vehicle is safe, but CarFax and the National Insurance Crime Bureau are offering free services to identify cars that have been listed as “salvage” by insurance providers.

The Justice Department created a special task force to combat post-disaster scams in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, and 1,400 people were prosecuted for fraudulent activities. Since then, the task force has become the National Center for Disaster Fraud and has referred over 50,000 cases to law enforcement officials as of 2016.

If you or a loved one were affected by Hurricane Harvey, we urge you to use caution in the weeks ahead. Criminal storm chasers take advantage of these hard times to prey upon those who were the most affected. For over 30 years, Williams Hart has helped members of the community defend against unfair practices, and our dedicated team of professionals is available for a free consultation today. We want you to know that if you have any doubts or concerns throughout the process of rebuilding and recovering, we can help you.

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