With millions of people affected by the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, there will inevitably be a second flood hitting Texas in the weeks to come: Scammers and con artists looking to prey on people who have been displaced, whose homes need extensive repairs, and on the rest of us who want to help by donating to a cause that will help them.
There are many ways that fraudsters try to victimize storm survivors a second time, but the three most common ways to take advantage of this situation involve posting sham rental listings for people flooded out of their homes, repair scams that take your money but do little or no repair work, and bogus charities that promise to help Hurricane-ravaged areas but just want to siphon off your cash.
Fake Rental Listings
With so many homes damaged by the storm, families all over the region will be looking for a place to live. This also means that evil jerks will try to take advantage of them by using bogus apartment and house rental listings.
Scammers post fake rental listings in the hope of swindling victims out of “deposit” money or a supposed fee for a credit check that never occurs.
If someone claiming to be a landlord or property manager requires that you send this money via wire transfer before ever seeing the property, it’s a huge red flag that something is wrong.
Never rent a home or apartment from someone you don’t see in person, and when looking for an apartment never wire money or give out your bank account or credit card information over the phone or internet.
How To Avoid Home Repair Scams
If your home has been damaged by the storm, you may be approached by supposed contractors offering to fix things up for you. But anyone can claim to be a contractor; that doesn’t mean they are one, or that they will actually do any of the work you pay for.
• Avoid complete strangers: Rather than deal with contractors who show up on your doorstep, check around to find one whose previous work can be vouched for — by friends, family, neighbors. If the contractor or repair specialist offers up references, be sure to check them out. You can probably contact local trade organizations to find bona fide contractors in your area.
• License to fix: Many home repair specialists are licensed by their respective states. For example, in Texas, the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulation has an online portal to verify professional licenses for certain repair-related specialists, like electricians and mold remediation services. Note that licensing requirements and disclosures vary by each state.
• Fake FEMA Endorsement: If a contractor claims to be endorsed of certified by FEMA, they are not telling the truth. FEMA does not certify or approve contractors.
• Get it in writing: If a job runs long, over budget, or is not completed to your satisfaction, a verbal agreement won’t help you very much. Get it all in writing before any work begins. Additionally, get multiple bids from different contractors so that you can compare their estimates. Don’t assume that the lowest bid is your best bet.
• Where’s Your Insurance? The contractor should be able to provide you with proof of insurance so you know that you’re not liable if they fall off a ladder, or on the hook if their dumpster does damage to your property.
• No full payment up front: No honest contractor will demand full payment up front, and a scam artist will flee a job as soon as they’ve gotten all the money. Make sure you’ve agreed to a payment schedule that requires the work is completed before the contractor receives the full balance. Using a credit card instead of cash (or debit card) offers additional protections against scams.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has a dedicated page on his website with more information on disaster-related scams.
How To Tell If A Charity Is A Scam
There are certain red-flag behaviors that should alert you to the likelihood you’re being duped by a bogus charity.
The anti-scam folks at the Federal Trade Commission have this checklist for dealing with a possible charity to make sure you’re not getting hosed:
Don’t be shy about asking who wants your money: If you’re solicited for a donation, ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who they work for, and the percentage of your donation that will go to the charity and to the fundraiser. If you don’t get a clear answer — or if you don’t like the answer you get — consider donating to a different organization.
Call the charity: Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If not, you may be dealing with a scam artist.
Ask for written information: This includes its full name, address, and telephone number.
Contact the office that regulates charitable organizations and charitable solicitations in your state: The National Association of State Charity Officials has contact information for regulators in each state available on its website.
Your state office also can verify how much of your donation goes to the charity, and how much goes to fundraising and management expenses.
Trust your gut and check your records:
Callers may try to trick you by thanking you for a pledge you didn’t make. If you don’t remember making the donation or don’t have a record of your pledge, resist the pressure to give.
Be wary of charities that spring up overnight:
This is especially true after natural disasters. They may make a compelling case for your money, but as a practical matter, they probably don’t have the infrastructure to get your donation to the affected area or people.
Watch out for similar sounding names:
Some phony charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization you know to check it out.
Be wary of charities eager to collect cash:
If they say they are sending a courier or offering overnight delivery service to collect your donation immediately, you have to wonder whether the charity is legitimate.
Know the difference between “tax exempt” and “tax deductible”:
Tax exempt means the organization doesn’t have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means you can deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return.
Do not send or give cash donations:
Cash can be lost or stolen. For security and tax record purposes, it’s best to pay by credit card. If you’re thinking about giving online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”)