For every natural disaster, such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, there are hundreds of scammers emerging from under their damp rocks, seeking to profit from the misery of others. Here are some of the most commons scams, and how to avoid falling prey to them.
Fake rental listings
At this writing, more than 1 million people have been driven displaced due to Hurricane Harvey. Many will not be able to return to their homes and will be seeking replacement housing. These unfortunate victims are a prime target for rental scammers. Although rental scams have become more common with the nation’s housing shortage and rising rents, they are even more prevalent in the wake of a disaster like Harvey. The scammers target desperate people who have lost nearly everything they own, including their homes.
To guard against these predators, anyone seeking rental housing should take these precautions:
- Always view the property—inside and out—before agreeing to rent and pay a deposit. Never rely solely on an online listing, even one with many attractive photos
- Verify that the person offering to rent to you owns the property or is the owner’s authorized representative
- Don’t rent from someone who is “out of town on business” or “on an extended vacation”
- Don’t wire money, especially to a foreign bank. This is the same as handing over cash
- Don’t give anyone important information, such as credit card or bank information, over the phone or by email without being completely sure they are legitimate.
With the widespread devastation from the storm, fraudulent “contractors” come out in droves. Some simply do shoddy work, while others take their victims’ money and disappear without doing any work at all. Here are some ways to avoid being taken:
- If possible, get a recommendation from someone you trust
- Check the contractor’s license status. You can do this by visiting your state’s licensing website
- Verify that the contractor has proper insurance. This will prevent you from incurring any liability from anything improper that the contractor might do. A contractor must carry liability insurance as a condition of their license with the state
- Be aware the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) never “endorses” or “certifies” any contractor. Scammers often make claims like this to appear legitimate
- Don’t pay the full fee up front. Although advance deposits for work to be done are common, never make the final payment until the contractor has completed the job to your satisfaction
- Think twice before paying in cash. Many scammers and unlicensed workmen insist on being paid in cash because it is untraceable—and unreturnable
Fake charities and aid organizations
When a natural disaster hits, scammers will use people’s kindness to line their pockets with “donations.” Some of these people will go door-to-door soliciting donations. They may be well-dressed, polite and earnest, but their appearance alone should not be enough to get you to part with your well-intentioned dollars. Take these precautions:
- Verify the identity of anyone claiming to be with a national charity. They should present some form of phot ID from the organization
- Don’t be fooled by the name of a “charity” whose name sounds very much like a familiar organization, but is very slightly different
- If you have the slightest doubt, call the headquarters of the organization before sending any money
- Verify the legitimacy of any organization before giving any money. You can do this online by going to the National Association of State Charity Officials
While this is not quite a scam, “clickbait” sites still mislead and deceive in the wake of any natural disaster to make money by tricking you into visiting their sites. They frequently lure viewers with sensational Photoshopped images with captions like, “You won’t believe what happens next…”
Clickbait is not as harmful as the others we’ve mentioned here, but it is still the despicable practice of profiting from the misery and misfortune of others.
Scammers have been exploiting disasters for as long as we have walked on two legs. Being forewarned of some of their tactics can keep you from becoming a victim.