Even after a hurricane like Ian, which destroyed homes, flooded neighborhoods and displaced many Floridians, there are people who unfortunately will take advantage of the already vulnerable.
After a disaster, scam artists, identity thieves and other criminals tend to use the opportunity to swindle victims out of their money, state and federal agencies said. Nefarious actors, such as unscrupulous contractors or digital scammers, might take advantage of an already bad situation, overcharging consumers for their services or collecting insurance benefits on behalf of a homeowner.
So how can people tell if they’re being scammed, and how can they avoid it? Here are some tips to keep your money as safe as possible during this time.
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Make sure your contractor is licensed
It’s illegal for a contractor to work in Florida without a license, according to the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. Any consumer who is approached by a contractor he or she doesn’t know should check their licensing status at MyFloridspanLicense.com or by calling the Florida Attorney General’s Office at 1-866-9NO-SCAM.
“Don’t think you can waltz into Charlotte County and take advantage of our people,” Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said. “If you are coming here with good intentions of helping, please, follow the appropriate steps to do so legally. Those who do not, you will be held accountable.”
Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will be in areas impacted by Hurricane Ian, along with housing inspectors and other officials.
Representatives from FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration carry official badges with photo IDs, and will never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications, according to FEMA.
“Don’t believe anyone who promises a disaster grant in return for payment,” FEMA wrote in an Oct. 1 news release. “Be wary of unexpected phone calls or visits to your home from people claiming to be FEMA housing inspectors or people claiming they work for FEMA. FEMA representatives will have your FEMA application number.”
Get at least three written and itemized lists of repairs
Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of student affairs and strategic initiatives at Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas, said quoting more than one contractor is good practice for any job, hurricane-related or not. Asking for several quotes can help weed out scammers and help customers determine who they’re most comfortable hiring.
“If you have several bids on a job, and one is way high, that may tell you there are some additional questions that need to be asked,” he said. “In talking to that contractor, they may have seen something other contractors didn’t, and they’ll need to get other bids again.”
If a contractor declines to provide references to a possible client, that’s a red flag, Rispoli said.
“If they are unwilling or don’t have references in the area, those are both red flags,” Rispoli said. “Some do travel in, but I would recommend looking for someone that’s local so you can call their references.”
Be careful what you click on
Emspanil scspanms are common after a major weather event, John Joyce, regional corporate security manager for Regions Bank in Tampa, said. Bad actors tend to use email and text scams, posing as someone’s bank, or even as FEMA, and once the victim clicks on a link, their personal information is compromised.
Be wary of email attachments as well, Joyce said. Clicking on one could start the installation of malware on a computer.
“Never give out personal information to an email or a text unless it is solicited by you,” Joyce said. “Anything that comes in unsolicited posing as a bank, verify that to make sure it’s the legitimate group that is contacting you.”
Only give insurance information to people you trust
In home improvement jobs, sometimes it makes sense for the customer to complete an Assignment of Benefits, which signs the rights of an insurance policyholder over to the contractor so he or she can work with the insurance company directly. But it’s important to only do that with familiar people, Joyce said, and people should avoid working with any company that insists they sign this form.
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“For legitimate things that can help, but for someone you don’t know who pushes that on you, it’s a big red flag,” he said. Also, never sign an Assignment of Benefits with blank spaces, he said.
Speaking of insurance…
People with damage from the storm should make sure their insurance company evaluates the wreckage, before any improvements start, Joyce said.
“If you start making improvements and the insurance adjuster comes through and finds it wasn’t as bad as it originally was, you might not receive the support you originally hoped for,” he said.
Never pay for an entire job up-front
If a homeowner hands over the entire cost of a job before it’s done, then the contractor has lost his or her incentive to finish the job and finish it properly, Rispoli said. It’s best to spread payments out throughout the project’s timeline, rather than pay all at once.
“They may be able to do it all with no money upfront, but they have expenses, too,” he said. It may be a phased contract, where you can give them a little to get started, and more after certain things are done.”
Don’t be afraid to ask a contractor for his or her license and take photos of them, their car and their license plate, Joyce said. Legitimate actors won’t have a problem with this, and if the person responds by getting out of there as quickly as possible, the customer probably just dodged a bullet, he said.
Keep your guard up
Even with more education on things like cyber crimes and contracting scams, people fall victim to it all the time, especially the elderly, Joyce said.
“They hear about (frauds) and read about them, but deep down they think, ‘That wouldn’t happen to me,’ and then it’s over before they really knew what hit them,” he said.
Ask lots of questions, consult a lawyer before signing anything, don’t let anyone inside a home while having preliminary discussions and be skeptical of anyone offering free money after a disaster, Joyce said.
If you suspect fraud…
Victims of scams can contact the Attorney General’s Fraud Hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or by filling out an online complaint form at myfloridspanlegspanl.com/contspanct.
If you suspect fraudulent activity surrounding FEMA, you can report it to [email protected], fax: 202-212-4926 or write to: FEMA Fraud and Internal Investigation Division, 400 C Street SW Mail Stop 3005, Washington, DC 20472.