Both victims and those looking to help are at risk of falling prey. Here’s what to look for.
As the victims of Hurricane Harvey start returning to their homes to assess the damage and rebuild, it’s time for a sad but necessary conversation.
Not only have thousands of these people lost their homes or suffered massive amounts of flood damage, but they are right in the crosshairs for scam artists looking to profit off their misery. Fake contractors, scammy bad credit lenders, and regular petty street criminals will all be looking to take advantage.
But they’re not the only ones who have to watch out for con artists and criminals. The same holds true for the millions of other folks nationwide who were horrified by the damage that Harvey wrought and who just want to help. Their eagerness to donate money towards a good cause, unfortunately, makes them a prime target for scams.
And with a state of emergency being declared in Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma, these types of hustles aren’t going away anytime soon.
Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself from con artists and others looking to take advantage. Here’s some expert advice for how people in both groups can stay one step ahead of the scammers.
Disaster Victims: How to Avoid Scam Contractors
Justin Lavelle is the Chief Communications Director of BeenVerified.com, a leading online background check platform. He’s an expert in scam prevention and identity fraud.
“In regard to Hurricane Harvey, there will be plenty of work to rebuild and this will bring in many out-of-state companies to help with the work.” says Lavelle. “Most may be legit, but there will be plenty of scam artists who will be trying to prey on the weak and vulnerable, so don’t be one of them.”
He has two big pieces of advice for avoiding scam contractors:
Check credentials: “Anyone claiming to be a contractor should be licensed and bonded and be willing to show you documents establishing those claims. Make sure that you follow-up before you give over your money. If you are not sure, do a background check.”
Inspectors and adjusters don’t ask for money: “If your property was damaged, then you are likely to have many people assisting with your claims. Don’t be fooled by imposters. If you are unsure, call the agency or insurance company you are working with and check them out.”
Lavelle also advises that scams aren’t the only thing a person has to watch out for:
“The over-committed construction company is not as much of a scam as it is a nuisance–but still it is something to look out for. Make sure that the company you hire or work with has the resources to do your job in a timely manner.
“Sure, certain delays will happen, but make sure that you are scheduled and your work is to be done timely. This is probably most effective with large established companies that have the personnel and resources for the work they do.
“Shy away from a few guys in a truck with out-of-state plates that claim they can rebuild your house in a week.”
Lastly, if you want to avoid scam artists, don’t work with anyone who insists on being paid in cash.
If you have more questions about how to handle hiring a contractor to fix your home–and also want to see verified customer reviews for different companies–check out this awesome (and free!) Restoration Guide from ConsumerAffairs.com.
The Four Post-Disaster Home Renovation Scams
It’s rare for con-artists to create an entirely new routine. In fact, most of them are all working from the same shopworn playbook.
The reason they do it is that these scams work. But it also means that you can more easily identify them.
To better help you recognize these warnings signs, Lavelle has helpfully broken down the four basic kinds of scams that con artists run in a post-natural disaster scenario:
Scam 1: “I have extra materials!”
“A contractor knocks on your door and claims to have extra materials from a job he just completed down the street. Not wanting to take a loss on the supplies, he offers to pave your driveway or patch your roof for a smoking good deal.
“As tempting as a good deal is, don’t be fooled.
“The con artist “contractor” will start working and then claim to find an issue that makes him raise the price of the job. Then if you object, the contractor might walk away, leaving you with a half-finished project.
“Or he or she may also take your money and run.
“Another way this situation could go: He paints your driveway with black paint instead of paving it with asphalt. Then you watch it wash away the next time it rains and cry.
“How to protect yourself: Never hire a contractor on the spot. Read reviews and make sure they do quality work before making any deals.”
Scam 2: “I have a special offer today!”
“This home improvement scam usually starts from a newspaper ad or mailer that advertises a home service for a ridiculously low price. After you call and request services, they’ll quote you for a slew of “problems” your house has.
“Worried that they need to get these fixes done, unsuspecting homeowners empty their pockets and the contractor leaves without finishing or doing any work at all.
“How to protect yourself: Confirm that the contractor’s business is legal, licensed and registered. Request to see a business license and proof of insurance.”
Scam 3: “I’ll need the money upfront…”
“A conning contractor will tell you that he’ll need a percentage of the project cost upfront. He might tell you the reason is that he needs to order materials or rent supplies.
“But once you pay him, he’ll disappear. Or he’ll do a poor job, thinking you can’t fire him because you’ve already paid him hundreds, or thousands.
“How to protect yourself: Down payments are a standard practice, but should never be unreasonable. Check the rules in your state regarding down payment limits. Some states limit down payments to 10 percent of the project price or $1,000, whichever is less.
“Also, before hiring any one contractor, get at least three different estimates.”
Scam 4: “Take my word for it.”
“While talking with your contractor about the repairs you’d like made, you add in a couple ideas. He gets excited about the ideas and even makes his own suggestions.
“You don’t put these ideas into your contract agreement because you think you had such a clear verbal understanding.
“Then you’re surprised when the contractor says those upgrades weren’t included in the price – and that you’ll have to fork over more money for them.
“How to protect yourself: Always get everything in writing. A legal contract is your safety net, should any issues arise. Be sure to review every detail before signing. If you are not comfortable, ask an attorney to review it before you sign. It’s a worthwhile investment to avoid problems on the back end.”
Non-Victims: How to Avoid Fake Charities
According to Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, “Internet criminals follow a similar editorial calendar as newspaper and magazine editors, coordinating their attacks around holidays, and the change in seasons. They further capitalize on significant events and natural disasters.”
“Right now,” says Siciliano, “there are 24-hour news reports focusing on the tragedy and people are understandably getting sucked into the drama of the events.
“This is a prime time to reach out to those same people who are enmeshed in the reports and get them to donate to fake organizations.”
Here are Siciliano’s tips for avoiding scammers and making sure that your donation gets into the right hands:
- Do not donate cash: “Anyone asking to come to your home or office and pick up cash is a scammer. Any phone calls or emails received requesting cash or to wire money transfers is a scam.”
- Be suspect of all emails requesting donations: “I would never click on a link in an email, especially short urls. Always manually enter the domain name into the address bar. The best thing is to go directly to the organization’s website.”
Read more about protecting yourself from scam emails in our post Don’t Let a Phishing Scam Lead to Bad Credit!
- Check with the Better Business Bureau: The first thing you should always do prior to making a donation to any charity is to check their credibility with the Better Business Bureau. Go online to the BBB’s charity tracker, Give.org, and search out the charity.”
- Give only to charities, not individuals: “Any communication from someone requesting money because of their hardship is an obvious scam. But some people are saps for an emotional sob story. While you may be savvy enough not to fall for these scams, someone in your life who may be naïve could.”
- Give soon and consider the Red Cross: “The American Red Cross is the most known and credible organization on the planet for helping out those in despair. Give now and give as much as you can.”
Additionally, Siciliano advises that you refrain from giving out credit card numbers via to an unsolicited email and never give out your PIN or account numbers “to anyone for any reason.”
Don’t let scammers make a bad situation worse. Just follow these steps and you can leave them in the dust.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses and property records.
Robert Siciliano (@RobertSiciliano) is a #1 Best-Selling Author and CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com which is funny, but serious about teaching you and your audience fraud prevention and personal security. Robert is a United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Staff Officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security whose motto is Semper Paratus. His programs are cutting edge, easily digestible and provide best practices to keep you, your clients and employees safe and secure. Your audience will walk away as experts in identity theft prevention, online reputation management, online privacy and data security.
Subscribe to our newsletter for more marketing news & industry trends
The information contained herein is provided for free and is to be used for educational and informational purposes only. We are not a credit repair organization as defined under federal or state law and we do not provide "credit repair" services or advice or assistance regarding "rebuilding" or "improving" your credit. Articles provided in connection with this blog are general in nature, provided for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for individualized professional advice. We make no representation that we will improve or attempt to improve your credit record, history, or rating through the use of the resources provided through the OppLoans blog.