Hurricane Scam Alert: Post-Disaster Predators

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Property damage and persistent flooding aren’t the only things that residents along the Eastern Seaboard need to worry about after Hurricane Irene.

Scammers are known to come out in droves after natural disasters, attempting to swindle distraught homeowners and charitable onlookers out of their hard-earned cash.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which issued a press release urging residents to be on the lookout for fraudsters in the wake of Hurricane Irene peddling the same scams that typically follow a natural disaster like urgent but bogus appeals for charitable donations and fraudulent home repair schemes.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) also warned consumers to be on the lookout for fly-by-night “storm chasers,” door-to-door salespeople hawking non-existent deals on repairs, and bogus charity solicitations. Both organizations offered the following tips for how to spot and avoid working with these individuals.

Look for Red Flags.

In terms on home repair peddlers, the BBB said to beware of any contractor who pressures you into working with them or asking for a full payment up-front. You should also be skeptical if a contractor tells you that you need to get the permits necessary to complete the repair.

Regarding fake charities, the FTC said consumers should be wary of websites and organizations that seem to have popped up overnight, which could be stated in the information on the website. Consumers should also exercise caution about making donations online, especially if those donations are being solicited through mass emails that feature embedded links and resemble spam.

Vet the organization.

While it can be easy to hire a contractor you’re not familiar with, since reputable contractors may be inundated with work, the FTC advises consumers to deal only with licensed and insured contractors. Consumers can verify a contractor’s authenticity by checking with their local Better Business Bureau and their local Home Builders Association to see if complaints have been lodged against whomever they are considering. It also helps to verify the track record of any roofer, builder or contractor you're thinking of hiring by asking for a list of recent customers and call them to check the references.

The BBB says they should also request at least three bids from separate contracting companies so that they can readily identify “low-ball estimates that may potentially balloon over time or foreshadow shoddy work to come.”

Charities can be vetted through the National Association of State Charity Officials or the BBB’s Wise Give Alliance.

Get everything in writing.

The FTC urges consumers to get a written estimate that includes any oral promises the contractor made. They should also ask if there's a charge for an estimate before allowing anyone into the home. If the contract differs from what was quoted, they should get an explanation for price differences. Consumers should also ask a knowledgeable friend, relative or attorney to review the contract before signing it, if possible.

With charities, consumers can also ask them to provide written information about how the donations will be used that include the name, address, and telephone number of company headquarters.

Dealing with property damage following the hurricane? Check out MainStreet’s seven tips for filing a post-Irene insurance claim!

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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