|Date:||October 20, 2018|
As residents of the Florida panhandle begin the difficult task of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Michael, they face a new peril: scams and fraud.
“Fraudsters are out there, taking advantage of vulnerable people overwhelmed by this storm,” says Jimmy Patronis, Florida chief financial officer and director of the state’s Department of Financial Services.
Opportunists looking for ways to cash in on the misfortune of others are particularly common after natural disasters. You may be hit with pleas to donate to fake charities, for example. Those whose property has been damaged may be further victimized by debriscleanup and home repair fraudsters.
Here are some hurricane scams that consumers are now facing and advice about how to protect yourself.
Patronis says that a very common fraud after hurricanes is the assignment-of-benefits scam. It works like this: Unscrupulous contractors drive around hard-hit neighborhoods, looking for homes with major roof or structural damage. The contractors approach homeowners and tell them they can get started on repairs right away, claiming they can waive insurance deductibles and offer discounted rates. Then they ask the homeowners to sign paperwork that lets them work with their insurers.
Don’t be fooled. With this scam, the fraudsters use the signature to collect insurance payments, and in many cases they simply disappear with the money.
“These guys can be very persuasive and encouraging, and they prey on people’s vulnerabilities after storms,” Patronis says. In 2006, Patronis says, Florida saw a total of 400 lawsuits related to assignment-of-benefits scams, and in 2018 there have been nearly 30,000. And it’s not all home contractors. He warns that car damage, particularly windshield repair, is another big target for assignment-of-benefits scammers.
Patronis asks anyone affected by Hurricane Michael who believes they have been a victim of insurance fraud to call his office’s hotline at 877-693-5236 or the Florida attorney general’s office at 866-966-7226, or to file a complaint online.
Agents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are on the ground in Florida, playing a major role in the cleanup. A FEMA home inspection is the first step in getting federal aid for damages and loss from declared disaster areas.
“After every storm we have reports of fraudsters posing as FEMA inspectors,” says Deanna Frazier, FEMA media relations manager. “They visit people’s homes, ask for their Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, and sometimes even demand immediate payment for an inspection.”
Frazier emphasizes that FEMA never charges for inspections, and the only information the agency requests is a nine-digit FEMA registration code, which homeowners themselves need to request by phone or on the internet.
Call FEMA at 800-621-3362 if you are suspicious of someone who says they’re a housing inspector sent by the agency.
With images of the flooded devastation on constant rotation, it’s no surprise that Americans have been inspired todonate money and supplies for hurricane relief, but remember that crooks are eager to step in and take advantage of altruistic souls.
The FTC and its state partners have been receiving reports of elevated levels of sham charity activities following Hurricane Michael, as well as Hurricane Florence in September. The FTC warns people to evaluate charities closely before giving them any support.
Among its recommendations:
The Department of Justice has issued guidelines to help those interested in giving avoid scammers:
If you think that you have been contacted by a fraudster, make sure to report it to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, at 866-720-5721. The line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Additionally, emails can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and information can be faxed to 225-334-4707.
Donate to charities you know and trust with a proven track record of dealing with disasters.