When natural disasters strike, criminals and con artists are often standing by to take advantage of relief efforts and charity drives. People who want to help disaster victims can easily find their generosity turned against them; protect yourself by watching out for these five common scams that always seem to surface after a natural disaster.
5 Natural Disaster Scams Targeting Consumers
Scams and frauds have happened in the aftermath of practically any natural disaster: Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Charley and many others. We have covered the 5 most common hurricane season and natural disaster scams targeting consumers.
1. Fake Social Media and Crowdfunding Pages
The rise of social media and crowdfunding has made it easier than ever to transfer money to people or projects around the world. Unfortunately, this also means it’s easier than ever to be duped.
Fake social media pages spread like wildfire after any natural disaster, soliciting “donations” while falsely claiming to be affiliated with legitimate organizations like the American Red Cross. Similarly, crowdfunding pages can be set up by anyone, and their creators may or may not actually be using money they receive for its stated purpose.
The case of Gary Fraser is a particularly notorious one; during Hurricane Katrina, Fraser established a website to raise funds that would allegedly be used to fly flood victims out of dangerous areas. Fraser pocketed the cash and no evidence of any actual rescue missions was ever presented.
Crowdfunding is essentially an honor system and you may not have any recourse if you are swindled, so consider not using these platforms if you want to be sure your donation gets where it’s supposed to go. In some cases, government officials may even funnel donated funds to themselves through real government agencies.
In any event, protect yourself by going directly to the website of a charity you wish to donate to, not by clicking on any links or invitations - especially if you received them unsolicited. Never give money to a door-to-door solicitor unless you are absolutely certain they are who they say they are; a legitimate employee of a disaster relief organization will never be offended by requests to verify their identity and will not attempt to avoid doing so.
Websites such as Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and the Wise Giving Alliance can help you determine whether or not a charity is legitimate.
2. Website Redirects and Unsolicited Emails
Just because you don’t live near the site of a natural disaster doesn’t mean you won’t be targeted by scammers. In fact, these days most money raised for disaster victims is donated by people who don’t live in the immediate area.
Beware of phishing campaigns and fake emails designed to trick you into thinking you’re helping someone who lost their home to a hurricane. If you ever receive such an email without having requested to be contacted first, it is almost certainly fake. A link may redirect you to a website that looks real, but isn’t.
Never reply directly to a suspicious email or click on any links within in. Real charity websites almost always end in .org, not .com, though this isn’t a foolproof verification method. If you’re unsure about whether a site is real or not, go directly to the charity’s website by typing it into your browser bar or research the site on one the charity verification sites listed above.
3. Repair Schemes and Fake FEMA Inspectors
Scammers posing as FEMA officials or local contractors may contact disaster victims directly and offer to quickly repair or replace their damaged property, usually for an upfront fee, which they will pocket before disappearing. This is never how legitimate repair work happens; in almost all cases, real contractors don’t show up uninvited and ask to do work for you.
In rare cases where honest contractors not intending to defraud anyone do initiate contact, they will never request upfront fees or fail to comply if you ask for proof of the legitimacy of their business.
In one of the most well-known examples of contractor fraud, Jackie Ruff of Port Charlotte, Florida was charged with grand theft for collecting deposits from over 50 Hurricane Charley victims for work he never intended to perform. Ruff was paid nearly $500,000 altogether and did complete some repair work for a few families, but never did any work for most of them.
Government inspectors may show up unannounced, but will be ready to prove they are who they say they are with photo identification. You can also phone their local office to confirm the person’s identity if you wish. Government employees also do not collect fees - if one asks you for money, they are an impostor.
Protect yourself from both kinds of scammers by doing thorough research on the person and the organization they claim to represent before allowing them to enter or work on your home.
4. Insurance Scams
After a natural disaster, victims may receive fraudulent phone calls - usually from automated dialing software - claiming to be from their insurance company. These calls claim that the policy owner is past due on premium payments and must make an immediate payment in order to avoid cancellation of their policy.
Real insurance companies never initiate contact this way - certainly not with auto-dialers. You will also never be threatened with cancellation of your policy on first contact. You will almost certainly know if you have missed insurance payments; most companies’ systems are remarkably accurate and mistakes of this kind are very rare. If in doubt, end the call and contact your insurance company directly.
5. Identity Theft
Often the most insidious and damaging kind of disaster relief scam, identity theft cases involve real victims filing for assistance or reimbursement through legitimate channels, only to find that someone else has already opened a claim in their name.
Stolen names and social security numbers are often auctioned to scammers online weeks before hurricanes or other predictable natural disasters strike. In one case, a woman by the name of Shantell Moses created multiple fake identification cards using real people’s information and fraudulently claimed nearly $17,000 from the American Red Cross.
This kind of scam is very difficult and painful to correct once it has already occurred; proactive prevention is the best option. Guard your personal information carefully and be selective about how you distribute it online. Don’t give information to websites if they have no justifiable reason for needing it - an online forum doesn’t need your physical address, for example.
Additionally, using a different, strong, and randomly generated password for each website you register with will make it much harder for thieves to steal your personal information.
If you nonetheless fall victim to this kind of scam, the steps you need to take to correct it will vary depending on many factors. Contact FEMA or your local law enforcement agency to find out how to go about recovering your identity.
How to Report Suspected Fraud
If you suspect a person or organization is fraudulent, or if you’ve actually been a victim of fraud, contact the following agencies.
FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline: 866-720-5721
Federal Trade Commission: file a complaint or call 1-877-382-4357
Your insurance company and/or local law enforcement or disaster relief agency, as applicable
Unfortunately, because scams are so common in our always-online world, you may want to assume that everyone who asks you for money after a natural disaster is potentially a criminal.
This doesn’t mean you should treat them like one without proof - it only means that you must do careful research and refrain from giving money or information to someone until you’re convinced they are above board. Legitimate aid workers and groups will understand that you need a day or two to verify them - the disaster is never so critical that it can’t wait that long.
- disaster fraud
- fake crowdfunding pages
- hurricane season scams
- identity theft
- insurance scams
- natural disaster scams
While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal, medical, accounting, investment, or any other professional advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.