Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,
Hurricane Harvey will end up being the most costly and destructive storm ever to hit the U.S. — at least for now. Initial estimates say the storm will cost over $190 billion in losses. And most people don’t have adequate flood insurance to cover their losses — despite several warnings in recent years.
In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison — also billed as a 500-year storm — caused major flooding in much of Houston, followed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. In May 2015, Houston suffered the worst flooding since Allison as rain pummeled the city over Memorial Day weekend.
The fact is there have been at least 25 major flood events in the Houston metro area since the mid-1970s (according to the Houston-based Weather Research Center and National Weather Service records), but many residents weren’t prepared for the devastation that accompanied Harvey.
Unfortunately, as victims return to their homes and businesses to face the daunting challenge of rebuilding their lives, there will be fresh dangers waiting for them. Often after such a crippling disaster, criminals seek out those who are desperate or ill-informed and prey on their vulnerability or compassion.
To avoid being duped, here are three common scams to watch out for in a post-disaster situation:
From coffee shops to churches and everywhere in between, numerous organizations are hosting fundraisers or soliciting donations on behalf of those affected by Harvey.
The problem is there are scam artists pretending to be from legitimate relief organizations like the American Red Cross who are also asking for donations.
The key here is to look for signs of deception. Be wary if the donation collector is overly pushy or constantly calling you.
If you want to donate, do so through a church or local business that you trust or directly to a well-known relief organization.
After a natural disaster, various government organizations provide an enormous amount of government aid to those affected. Sadly, criminals use this as an opportunity to collect personal information from victims.
Basically, scammers will call you pretending to represent a federal agency like FEMA and ask for your date of birth, Social Security number and even the spelling of your name and address. Then they will use these details to steal your identity.
The best way to avoid being a victim is to contact government relief agencies directly — and never give out your Social Security number over the phone. In addition, if you don’t have one in place already, I recommend putting a freeze on your credit with each of the three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
After a devastating experience, the last thing you should have to worry about is being scammed when you think you’re getting help to rebuild your life.
Some fraudsters will actually travel into a damaged area and look for people who need help fixing or rebuilding their homes.
These so-called repairmen will give you an estimate on the work needed and ask for a deposit to reserve your spot on their work list. Then they’ll schedule the repairs a few days in advance — but when the time comes, they are long gone. Typically, these criminals will work their way through the affected area and try to scam as many people as possible before hitting the road and getting out of town.
If you are approached by pushy repairmen, don’t let them work on your home. Don’t even accept their offer of a “free estimate.” Simply tell them you are assessing the damage before making any decisions.
Even if your insurance company isn’t covering some or all of the repairs, ask them for a list of approved contractors. Also, be sure to request a signed copy of the contract stating the work to be done and expected costs and never pay the full amount upfront.
The bottom line is Hurricane Harvey has brought out the best of humanity — I’ve read countless heartwarming stories of strangers helping one another in amazing ways. But events like this can also bring out the worst in people, so be on the lookout for scams.