As much as natural disasters like the recent winter storm can bring communities together, they also can bring out scammers ready to bilk people out of money.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, some of the most common types of post-disaster fraud are phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors, and people claiming to represent state, local, or federal agencies and charging a fee for disaster aid or other free services.
Some unscrupulous people even pretend to be collecting donations for disaster relief. These scams can happen by phone, email, websites, or in person.
The people behind these scams don’t even wait until a disaster is over.
Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials reported that, during the storm, when rolling blackouts and longer period of outages were occurring, scammers were soliciting people’s utility and financial information with the promise of restoring electricity to their homes. ERCOT and utility companies don’t do this, officials pointed out.
As people assess storm damage to their homes, properties, and businesses, there’s always a chance someone will approach them to do the work. Officials recommend people do some research before hiring anyone for repairs or cleanup, including getting estimates from several contractors. If an offer seems too good to be true, it usually is, so pass on it.
Also, ask for references from previous customers.
In Texas, contractors are required to provide a notice of cancellation, which gives people three business days to change their minds if the transaction occurred in the individual’s home. If the transaction doesn’t take place in the person’s home, they can still request the three-business-day notice.
“There is no legitimate reason to refuse this request,” officials pointed out.
Always get the agreement in writing and read the contract carefully. Don’t sign any contract with blank spaces to be filled in later.
Other tips to avoid scams include:
- check a person’s identification
- verify contractors insurance
- make sure contractors have proper licensing and are bonded
- ensure contractors obtain necessary permits
- demand satisfaction and don’t sign off or make a final payment until work is done completely
- report suspected fraud to local law enforcement
Todd Kossow of the Federal Trade Commission pointed out that scammers often try to make collecting people’s money as easy as possible for themselves.
“All scammers want to get your money as quick as possible and in ways that make it hard to trace them and harder for you to get your money back,” he said on a video by the FTC.
He and other officials recommend against wiring money or paying with reloadable debit and gift cards.
“There is no legitimate reason to request those forms of payment,” according to FEMA officials.
And, they stressed, never give personal financial information over the phone.