While we are always aware that disaster can strike at any time, I have seen first-hand the destruction of hurricanes and other natural or manmade disasters, throughout my twenty years in a Prosecutor’s Office and seventeen years in private practice.
We see friends helping each other, strangers offering solace, supplies and support. But unfortunately, disasters also can bring out some of the worst in people. During the recovery period, especially, fly-by-night contractors and scam artists follow in the wake of disasters, ready to prey on vulnerable victims who are eager for help and solutions.
We are providing you with a list of some of the typical types of fraud that can take place after a disaster along with suggestions for how you can avoid them.
Price Gouging – Unfortunately, occurrences of price gouging following a disaster are well documented. Most businesses are community minded and deal with their neighbors fairly. Some, however, are not. Once a commodity becomes a scarcity, vendors may suddenly raise prices beyond any reasonable amount – just because they know the market will pay inflated prices.
Advanced Fee Loan Scam – Victims of disasters often are cash-strapped. They not only face repairs that must be made immediately, but they may also need simple household items or food staples. When the power is out, ATMs don’t work either – so even normal access to cash may be temporarily eliminated. As such, the need to obtain a quick loan may be critical, but no one should be tempted by promises of “guaranteed” loans for up-front fees. Telephone solicitors may request a loan initiation fee ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars. Fraud prevention experts warn that those who fall for this may never get a loan or see their money again.
Door-to-Door Solicitation and Charity Fraud – In the wake of a disaster, there is one scam that relies on the good nature and generosity of human beings. In this situation, ‘fake’ solicitors may call, email or even come to your door seeking donations to help with recovery efforts. In most municipalities, anyone soliciting door-to-door must be registered with the local police department. But regardless of how the appeal is made, caution must be exercised in all cases. There are far too many charities that pop up on the scene, appearing to direct their efforts and funds to disaster victims but which are not legitimate. For peace of mind, everyone should donate directly to a recognized charity of choice.
Before you donate, remember:
• Do not give cash
• Do not give out your credit card number unless you verify the charity
• Write a check payable only to the charity
• Do not be pressured into giving
• Do not give to a charity because you were sent a gift, or you are offered a “free” prize
• Do not be fooled by names that sound similar to legitimate charities
• Beware of organizations offering to send a courier to pick up your donation
• Do not do business over the telephone – ask for information in the mail
• Beware of appeals that are long on emotion and short on fact
When people solicit a charitable donation, ask questions:
• What is your full name?
• What is the phone number and address that you are calling from?
• What is the full name of the charity you represent?
• What is the headquarters’ address?
• What is the telephone number?
• How long has the charity been in operation?
• What are its goals and purposes?
• How will my donation be used?
• How much of my donation will go directly to the charity?
While these are just a few of the fraudulent activities that are most common after a disaster, the bottom line is to be alert, exercise caution, and ask questions – as well as inquiring with others you trust for referrals. Do not ever make a decision under pressure and do not feel you must act in haste. If you do face a problem or suspect you are a victim of fraud, contact your Local or County Law Enforcement Agency.