Posted by Brian Monroe -
After trail of destruction, devastation left by Hurricane Ian, victims now must contend with new wave of misery: scammers
- As victims of Hurricane Ian try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, homes and businesses, many government agencies are warning of a second storm surge: heartless and predatory scammers.
- These callous tactics are on the minds of Florida officials and federal agencies, who warn the schemes, scams and frauds in the wake of such a disaster can take many forms. It might be a fake charity asking for donations.
- It could be a crooked contractor overcharging for cleaning up debris. It could be a job advertisement requiring payment of certain fees up front. Or it could be someone offering coveted rentals, with fees and deposits that have to be paid “immediately” or you will lose your spot.
As victims of one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall in the United States try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, homes and businesses, many government agencies are warning of a second storm surge: heartless and predatory scammers.
Hurricane Ian, with winds of 150 miles per hour – just a few miles shy of Category Five strength – tore a wide swath of destruction through Florida’s Gulf and Central regions, leaving millions without power, damaging hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses and leaving dozens dead.
“The scale of the wreckage was staggering, even to Florida residents who had survived and rebuilt after other powerful hurricanes,” according to reporters with the New York Times, who toured the areas where the massive eye leveled its loathsome, glaring gaze.
“The storm pulverized roads, toppled trees, gutted downtown storefronts and set cars afloat, leaving a soggy scar of ruined homes and businesses from the coastal cities of Naples and Fort Myers to inland communities around Orlando.”
With the coastal regions in recent decades drawing ever more residents – and historic practices of “dredge and fill” in Florida removing some of the natural buffers against storms and storm surge – the financial impact of Ian could be historic.
Some published estimates have stated the storm caused insured losses of more than $60 billion – putting it as the second most expensive disaster event in the country’s history.
Those grim figures trail only 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which caused nearly $90 billion in damages, according to the Washington Post, which published a “by the numbers” piece detailing some of the physical metrics of the power of the storm and rising figures related to crumpled homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, with victims still reeling from, in some cases, losing everything – that is, except their bank accounts – and feeling broken, desperate and vulnerable, the next surge to prepare for: scammers, fraudsters and predatory contractors and insurance professionals.
“Help comes within days, predators come within hours,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis in recent statements to media channels.
With many communities without basic necessities and residences damaged or even razed, “rogue contractors” will try to take advantage of the “lack of communication” that many are experiencing after the storm.
“They can’t talk to somebody they trust to get advice,” he told MSBNC. “So these door-to-door predators are like locusts and they will see this opportunity to prey.”
Beware anyone offering help, but requiring money up front – in-person or online: FTC
These callous tactics are also on the minds of federal agencies, who warn the schemes, scams and frauds in the wake of such a disaster can take many forms.
It might be a fake charity asking for donations in person or online.
It could be a crooked contractor – or just an opportunistic cheat – overcharging for cleaning up debris or demanding hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash for repairs that will never happen.
It could be a job advertisement noting openings and help for out-of-work victims, with the catch you have to pay certain fees up front.
Similarly, it could be someone in-person, or online, offering coveted rentals at hotels or people’s homes, similar to an off-the-books Airbnb, with fees and deposits that have to be paid “immediately” or you will lose your spot.
In one scam that is particularly galling, called the “home improvement loan scam,” a builder promising to fix a storm-damaged home will dupe the victim into getting a loan from a bank – without their knowledge or consent – and the funds get wired to the contractor.
Once the person gets their money, they disappear – leaving the victim with a partially repaired residence, if the work even ever stated to begin with, and a loan of tens of thousands of dollars or more to pay off, complete with crushing, inflated interest rates.
The scam might not even have anything to do with the area.
Foreign fraudsters can easily start a social media page, or GoFundMe initiative, posing as a family that has lost everything – and all of the funds go to fraud capitals of the world, like India, Thailand and the Philippines.
“As recovery efforts continue in areas hit hard by mother nature’s recent bi-coastal punch, scammers are not far behind,” according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has published a host of pieces to help consumers detect and protect themselves from being victimized – again.
“They see tragedy as opportunity, and they’ll use the devastation caused by severe storms — like Typhoon Merbok, Hurricane Fiona, and Hurricane Ian, now headed for shore — to try to take advantage of those affected.”
Here is a listing of some of the scams to be on guard against, according to the FTC:
Charity scams: Look for fake, but official-sounding, similar names, to known groups
Don’t assume that familiar-sounding names or messages posted on social media are legitimate.
As well, only Donate to charities you know and trust and with a proven record of dealing with disasters.
With that in mind, don’t always follow posted links on social media sites that go to the purported charity site. Hackers and scammers are experts at creating sites looking identical to the real thing.
Only donate to sites where you found it in a known search engine or, to ensure nothing is amiss, type out the actual name of the site and go directly to it.
Organizations that can help you research charities
If you are still on the fence about if a site is legitimate or not, these organizations offer reports and ratings about how charitable organizations spend donations and how they conduct business:
Some charities will quickly say whatever you donate is “tax deductible,” making it seem like any donation is money well spent as it will be recouped later.
That statement, as you can imagine, is not always accurate.
The best way to make sure a charity is official: The IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization Search tells you if your donation would be tax deductible.
You can also find your state charity regulator at nasconet.org.
Most states require the charity or its fundraiser to register to ask for donations.
The FTC also offers a bevy of tools to research the organization before you give.
Crowdfunding Scams: If you don’t know them, don’t trust them
Be cautious about giving to individuals on crowdfunding sites, say the FTC, knowing that it is too easy in the age of “social media influencers” to get duped by either a very convincing sob story or, conversely, a charismatic post by a comely and quite vapid virtual socialite.
The best course of action: It’s safest to give to someone you personally know and trust.
When in doubt, do your due diligence. Review the platform’s policies and procedures as not all crowdfunding sites verify postings for help after a disaster.
These schemes beg the question: why are crowdfunding sites such a target for illicit groups in making money, or laundering it?
The answer: few if any countercrime controls.
One of the top fincrime compliance vulnerabilities of crowdfunding sites is that while they solicit money for an individual or purported business venture, they are not subject to formal anti-money laundering rules, like banks and other financial services firms.
At most, some of the larger crowdfunding sites mention that they try to look for and shut down fraudulent campaigns or individuals who have been chastised or blocked in the past from popping back up again.
But there is little evidence to see if that is true or such counter-scam efforts are bearing fruit.
Key tips to avoid falling victim, donating to a crowdfunding scam
It’s important to do your own research before you give because later it might be impossible to know whether a crowdfunding cause was real and if the money actually got to the intended recipient.
Here are a few tips:
To protect yourself, if someone wants donations in cash, by gift card, by wiring money or cryptocurrency, don’t do it.
Pay by credit card, which offers more protections, or by check.
Find out who’s behind the crowdfunding request
If a friend posted, shared, or “liked” the request on social media, contact your friend offline.
Ask what they know about the post.
Do they know the person or group who’ll get the money? If not, try finding out who the campaign organizer is and look them up online. The crowdfunding platform should tell you who the organizer is.
If you can’t find them online, or the details you find don’t match what they’re saying on the campaign page, be suspicious.
As well, look up any of the names of the companies, individuals or regions related to the crowdfunding request and also look up terms including fraud, scam, scheme and such, to see if others have complained about the practices of those involved.
Do a reverse image search of the photos used on the crowdfunding campaign page
Search on your web browser how to do a reverse image search and see if the campaign images are associated with other names, or whether the details don’t match what the crowdfunding campaign is saying.
Do a reverse image search of the campaign organizer’s social media profile picture, too.
Scammers often use stolen photos and copy and paste other people’s stories. If you find anything suspicious, you can always help in a different way.
The safest way to give through a crowdfunding campaign is to donate to campaigns organized by people you actually know.
In that same vein, if you see someone you think you know – or even a celebrity or someone with an extensive social media following, hundreds of thousands or millions – all of a sudden start shilling for a certain crowdfunding campaign, be cautious.
Criminal groups are adept at hacking social media sites and then blasting out requests for donations from followers – but the funds go back to a fake crowdfunding campaign controlled by fraudsters.
The FTC offers a resource page here: Donating Through Crowdfunding, Social Media, and Fundraising Platforms
Donating Through Social Media: think before you link or money could go to third parties, scammer pockets
As we noted above, if you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen posts from people asking for donations.
Pay attention to who’s asking and who’s getting the money.
Don’t assume that a request on social media is legitimate, or that hyperlinks are accurate just because a friend posted it.
Check where the donation link goes
Does it go to a crowdfunding campaign?
If that’s the case, any money you give will go directly to the crowdfunding organizer. It’s best to confirm with the person who posted the link that they know the person behind the fundraising.
If the link is to a charity’s website, research the charity before you give
Read Before Giving to a Charity to learn more, says the FTC
Donating Through Other Online Fundraising Platforms
An online fundraising platform, or online giving portal, is a website that lets you donate to one or more charities you select from a list on the site.
Companies like eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Lyft, and others have added charitable giving to their services. They’ve done this by creating online fundraising platforms and making them available to their members.
When you donate through an online fundraising platform, your money may not go directly to the charity you chose.
Another company — maybe the platform or some other intermediary — may get your money first, take some of it as a fee, and then pass on the rest to the charity.
And it may take time for the charity to get the money.
That could be an issue if you’re donating to help people with immediate needs, like people affected by a natural disaster.
The best online fundraising platforms will have clear, easy-to-find information on their websites about:
- Where your money goes. Online fundraising platforms should tell you who gets your donation and how your money gets to the charity or beneficiary you chose. Just remember that even if a charity is listed on an online fundraising platform, you should still do some research on that charity to see how your donation will be used.
- Fees. The website should clearly state if the platform or another intermediary will keep part of your donation as a fee before sending the rest to your chosen charity. Consider whether the charity would get more of your donation if you donated directly.
- Timing. Online fundraising platforms should say how long it will take for the charity to get your donation.
- Follow-through. Just in case your donation can’t be sent to the charity you chose, the website should say what happens to it — and how often that happens.
- Your information. Check if you can choose whether or not your information is shared with the charity — or anyone else.
If these details aren’t clear, consider taking your donation money elsewhere. You can always go directly to the website of the charity you want to support.
Clean up, repair, rebuild scams: No cash, read the fine print, view, log IDs
After natural disasters, unlicensed contractors and scammers may appear with promises of quick repairs, clean-up, and debris removal, in some instances pressuring you to make decisions quickly – or lose out on their now supposedly in-demand services.
Some may demand upfront payment and not do the work, claim you’ll get a discount but quote outrageous prices, or lack needed skills.
Before anyone starts work, here are some tips to prevent from getting taken to the cleaners:
- Check them out: Ask for IDs, licenses, proof of insurance, and references. See if local contact info is on their trucks. Check with state and local consumer protection offices for complaints. As well, take pictures of their company names and logos, get phone numbers and take a photo of their ID – making it harder for them to create a fake name with no connection to their bad acts.
- Get more than one estimate: Ask people you trust for recommendations. In the Internet age, you can also quickly look up figures on your phone to see if they are inline with published and industry estimates for similar jobs.
- Read the contract carefully: Make sure all promises are in writing and that you understand what you’re signing. Similar to above, look up online “contractor contracts” and similar business deals to ensure the documents are verbiage are similar.
- Never pay in cash: And never make the final payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied with it.
On that end, when it comes to reviewing and controlling costs, watch out for contractors that try to inflate the costs of materials.
Ask for detailed breakdowns down to the individual costs of nails, boards and roofing supplies and where they are buying them, such as Lowes or Home Depot.
Then, and very importantly, ask if the person is getting a “contractor discount” as they likely are, but could be charging you full retail price.
Because contractors tend to buy in bulk and do significant business with these retailers, they get steep discounts — that you should be aware of when pricing out home repairs.
Spot imposters: how to tell when an official is officially official
Beyond just the money in your bank account, scammers are also hungry for data, personal information and details tied to your credit cards.
How best to get these?
By lowering your guard by pretending to be someone they are not, even coming in under the guise of a guardian angel state or federal official promising desperately needed relief, supplies or funds.
Imposter scams come in many varieties but work the same way: a scammer pretends to be someone you trust and tries to convince you to send them money or give personal information.
- Some scammers pretend to be government officials, safety inspectors or utility workers who say immediate work is required. Ask for IDs. If anyone asks you for money or your financial information, like your bank account or credit card number, it’s a scam.
- Know that FEMA doesn’t charge application fees. If someone wants money to help you qualify for FEMA funds, it may be a scam.
You lost your house and are out of a job, but the scammer’s job is still to take what little you have left
You may find yourself out of work after a disaster strikes, so the FTC warns to Be alert to job scams.
To trick people looking for honest work, scammers advertise where real employers and job placement firms do.
They lie about your chances of getting a job and often ask you to pay before you get one — which is a sure sign of a scam. You can get real help finding work from:
- CareerOneStop: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, CareerOneStop lists hundreds of thousands of jobs.
- State and county offices: Your state’s Department of Labor may have job listings or be able to point you to local job offices that offer counseling and referrals.
- College career service offices: See what help your school can offer. If you’re not a current or former student, some schools still may let you look at their job listings.
Rental listing scams: Beware sudden openings in scarce market, push for quick deposits
Be wise to rental listing scams.
If you’re looking for a place to live, steer clear of people who tell you to wire money or who ask for security deposits or rent before you’ve met or signed a lease.
- Some scammers hijack a real rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified ad on another site.
- Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent or great amenities.
Signs of a Home Improvement Scam
How can you tell if a contractor might not be reputable? Here are some tactics scammers use:
- Scammers knock on your door looking for business because they are “in the area.”
- Scammers say they have materials left over from a previous job.
- Scammers pressure you for an immediate decision.
- Scammers ask you to pay for everything up front or only accept cash.
- Scammers ask you to get any required building permits.
- Scammers suggest you borrow money from a lender they know.
How To Avoid a Home Improvement Scam
Here are some tips to help protect yourself and your money:
- Consider only contractors who are licensed and insured. Check with your state or county government to confirm their license and ask the contractor for proof of insurance.
- Get contractor recommendations from people you know and trust.
- Check with the local Home Builders Association and consumer protection officials to see if they have complaints against a contractor. You also can search online for the company’s name with words like “scam,” “review,” or “complaint.” Or use online rating websites you trust to see what others are saying about the contractor.
- Get multiple estimates. A written estimate should include a description of the work to be done, materials, completion date, and the price. Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder. And ask for an explanation if there’s a big difference among the estimates.
- Read the contract carefully. Contract requirements vary by state. Even if your state doesn’t require a written agreement, ask for one. Before you sign a contract, make sure it includes
- the contractor’s name, address, phone, and license number
- an estimated start and completion date
- any promises made during conversations or calls related to issues such as the scope of work and the cost of labor and materials
- a written statement of your right to cancel the contract within three business days, if you signed it in your home or at a location other than the seller’s permanent place of business
And, make sure all blank spaces are filled in.
- Don’t pay the full amount for the project up front. Some states actually limit the amount of money a contractor can ask for as a down payment.
- Contact your state or local consumer agency to find out the law in your area. And never make the final payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied with it.
The Home Improvement Loan Scam
Sometimes, contractors will not just scam you through the work they do — or don’t do.
Sometimes, they’ll actually set up a scam that ends with a loan against your home.
Here’s how it works: a contractor calls or comes to your door. He offers a deal to install a new roof or remodel your kitchen. He says he can arrange financing through a lender he knows. After he starts work, he asks you to sign papers.
They may be blank — or he might hustle you along and not give you time to read through them.
Later, you find out you’ve agreed to a home equity loan with a high interest rate, points, and fees. What’s worse, the work on your home isn’t done right or isn’t completed, and the contractor — who may already have been paid by the lender — has stopped returning your calls.
To avoid a loan scam
- Never agree to financing through your contractor without shopping around and comparing loan terms.
- Never agree to any loan without understanding the terms of the loan and knowing whether you can make the payments.
- Don’t sign a document you haven’t read, or that has blank spaces.
- Don’t let anyone pressure you into signing any document.
- Never transfer your deed to anyone without consulting an attorney, a knowledgeable family member, or someone else you trust.
Report a Problem
If you have a problem with a home improvement project
- First try to resolve it with the contractor. Many disputes can be resolved at this level.
- Follow any phone conversations with a letter you send by certified mail. Request a return receipt, so you can prove that the company got your letter.
- Keep notes and copies of letters and documents for your files.
If you can’t resolve it with the contractor, consider getting outside help from law enforcement, local media or association watchdog groups, including:
- your state attorney general or local consumer protection office
- your local home builders association
- your local media’s Call For Action lines
- dispute resolution programs
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