Disaster Scams Special Part 1: 20 Tricks to Watch For

The most common disaster scams, hoaxes and dirty tricks: Internet Scambusters #531

At any one time, many parts of the US and indeed the world, are suffering from disasters and states of emergency — and their inevitable consequence: disaster scams.

Only the most dramatic make national headlines but even the smallest of incidents attracts the attention of crooks who don’t waste a moment trying to cash in.

This week’s issue — the first of a two-part report — identifies the 20 most common disaster scams. Read it, keep it and pass it on.

Now, here we go…


Disaster Scams Special Part 1: 20 Tricks to Watch For


Disaster scams are now established as a major crime in our society.

And no wonder. Just take a look at the map at the bottom of the FEMA home page, showing where disasters currently are located in the US. Most of them you may never have heard of.

So, since we live in a world where, sadly, emergencies happen all too frequently, the Scambusters team has pulled together a definitive checklist of the most common tricks, how to avoid them and where to get information and help.

These cruel scams, hoaxes and malicious messages cover the full gamut of incidents, from natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires, to human-created tragedies like mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

Wherever there is media interest, there are crooks waiting to exploit public reaction — both from those directly affected by the incident and the rest of us as onlookers.

They act remarkably fast, usually within minutes or hours of an incident. Their hauls can run into millions of dollars. And they pile pain and misery on top of the tragedy that has already occurred.

In this issue, we list the 20 most frequent disaster scams and other tricks to be on the lookout for. Part Two provides the rules for avoiding them and the sources of more information.

Here, in no particular order, is our list of 20 disaster tricks.

1. Bogus charity collections

They may be online, on air, in the mall or on your doorstep — con artists asking for your money to support tragedy victims.

They may hijack well-known names, like the Red Cross, use official-sounding, government-type titles, or use the name of the incident as their “charity” title.

2. Fake social media pages

On Facebook and other sites, crooks set up pages in the names of individual victims or organizations that might be involved.

They may be a platform for donations, provide links to other sites (see next item), or just the product of warped minds intended to cause grief to those affected.

3. Fake websites

Within minutes of a disaster, hundreds of domain names are usually registered, with corresponding websites supposedly related to the incident.

Their purpose may be to solicit donations, sell products (which may or may not exist), phish for personal information for identity theft, or to upload malware onto your PC.

4. Email news alerts

Using sensational headlines, often promising dramatic photographs or previously undisclosed information, these messages invite you to click on a link or open an attachment.

Most likely their aim is to infect your PC with a virus, usually spyware or a keylogger.

5. Spam

A variation of #4, spam emails use the incident as a lever to encourage you to buy whatever product they’re peddling.

They may be for just unrelated junk but often they promote the sale of items that prey on fears or appear to offer solutions — things like generators, weapons or food supplies.

They may even try to sell gruesome “souvenirs” of the incident — pieces of wood, bullets and so on, which may be real or fake.

6. Chain letters

Those weirdoes who get a kick out of trying to force you to circulate their message to 10 other people love disasters.

They may invoke a religious message — typically claiming the incident was the wrath of God — and warn of a repeat if you don’t pass it on, or promise a miracle if you do.

7. Imposter scams

This is a variation of the well known grandparent or stranded tourist scam in which the crook pretends to be a friend or relative who has been caught up in the disaster.

They may phone or send an email asking you to wire cash to help them to a personal crisis, like a food shortage or travel ticket.

8. Track-down offers

Con artists, often masquerading as private eyes or official investigators advertise via spam emails, bogus websites or online classified services.

They offer to help concerned people to track down friends or relatives who may have been caught up in the incident — for a fee — but they’re just after the money.

9. Hate mail

More weirdoes — people who send out malicious emails or post sick messages on the Facebook pages of victims or their families.

Again, there might be a religious dimension with the author suggesting the victims deserve their misfortune.

10. Sale of damaged/contaminated items

From food to autos, many items damaged in a disaster, especially a flood, often find their way onto the market.

They may not be labeled as such and they’re potentially dangerous.

11. Scare stories

Con artists and doom-mongers warn of a repeat of the incident or some unforeseen consequence that’s about to emerge.

Depending on the incident, their motives may be political, religious, commercial — trying to sell you something — or just downright malicious.

12. Price gouging

Although illegal in most states, traders may inflate prices for items, like fuel, water and food, that become scarce in a disaster.

Worse, opportunists buy up stocks or loot damaged buildings, then offer the products for sale at high prices.

13. Evacuation hoaxes

During an incident, residents may receive a message, supposedly from one of the emergency services, saying they must evacuate their property.

Once they’re gone, crooks move in to burglarize the home.

14. Bogus grant services

In the wake of a disaster, government grants are often offered to speed up the process of getting back to normal.

This opens the door for “advance fee” type scams, where victims are asked to pay upfront either for supposed help to get an official grant, or for a nonexistent grant the scammer just invented.

15. Investment opportunities

Clean-ups, changes in security and safety arrangements, and new construction are all genuine revenue-generating side effects of a disaster.

Scammers use this as a platform for soliciting investments, often claiming they have access to little known opportunities or solutions.

16. Bogus contractors

After charity scams, bogus contractors are probably the biggest crime problem in the wake of a disaster.

They offer tree removal, building repairs, utility services and security services, which they’re unlicensed to provide.

They may do the job, usually poor quality, or just take the money and run. Often they charge inflated prices to desperate victims.

They may even just want to get inside your house so they can rob you.

17. Insurance sales

Playing on our fears about similar, future incidents, spammers, telesales and door-to-door sales people offer insurance against future risks.

They use high-pressure sales techniques and may offer bargain prices but the insurance policies either don’t exist or come from shady companies.

18. Phony jobs

Scammers claim to be recruiting employees to help with the cleanup and repair effort.

They operate nationwide and charge a fee for a list of available jobs. Or they may simply invent jobs and ask for a fee for background checks or payment for equipment they say you’ll need.

19. Business scams

Watch out for phony grants (see item #14), imposter scammers claiming to be a stranded employee, and bogus inspectors who just want to get inside your workplace.

Con merchants may also use forged checks to trick businesses into shipping large orders of disaster-related supplies, or making advance payments for shipping charges.

20. Other phishing tricks

Too numerous to detail, crooks will employ any technique they can to extract confidential information like bank account and Social Security details.

For example, they may offer financial aid or food stamps to victims but say they need these confidential details first, or use many of the other scams listed above to get ID information as a by-product of their crime.

The sad fact is that we’ve encountered every single one of the above crimes in our reporting of disaster scams over the years.

But take heart! Now you know what to look out for.

In Part Two, we’ll give you the rest of the information you need to beat the scammers.

In the meanwhile, please pass this information on to those you care about.

We hope you and they will never need to use it but no one can predict the future — only that when there are disasters, disaster scams won’t be far behind.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!