Tornado and other disaster scams on the rise: Internet Scambusters #993
The recent tornado disasters that struck Kentucky and other states have sparked a renewed warning about disaster scams.
But they're just part of an ongoing war with crooks who cash in on the trail of catastrophes and emergencies.
In this week's issue, we highlight the biggest steps you can take to avoid falling foul of the tricksters.
Let's get started…
Tornado Warning: How To Spot And Stop Disaster Scams
Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and other extreme weather emergencies are threatening a surge in disaster scams across the US.
As tornadoes ripped through Kentucky and other states this month, emergency services warned that storm-chasing scammers and con artists would follow the trail of death and destruction.
Exploiting the possibility of more ferocious storms, crooks cash in on the misery of victims with a catalog of nasty tricks.
Typically, they offer to do repairs and clearance or, claiming to be an official of some sort, arrange financial help. Or they may be rental home scammers or fake charities pretending to raise money for victims.
Crowdfunding websites in particular are a big scam danger. Crowdfunding involves online campaigns where people or organizations try to get individuals to donate to their project or cause. After the tornadoes, more than 300 money drives were launched on one crowdfunding site within 72 hours, attracting more than $1 million from 15,000 donors.
They may all have been genuine, and most sites do try to filter out the scammers, but you can be sure that crooks do their best to slip past the safeguards.
Spot and Stop Disaster Scammers
When you're struggling through the after-effects of a tornado or other natural disaster, it's easy to let your guard down and fall for the smooth talk of tricksters in the rush to put things right.
Don't rush. Allow yourself time to think things through and to check out repair and loan offers and other possible solutions to your problems.
Here are some more tips to keep you safe from the disaster scam artists:
- Be wary of anyone promising immediate action to clear debris and repair damage, especially if they're accompanied by sky-high costs or demands for upfront payment. The only job that gets done immediately is the next one. So, unless you're genuinely next in line, it's a scam.
- Check the reputation and credentials (license and insurance) of any contractor you're considering. Ideally, seek recommendations from others. Get a written contract for any major work.
- Don't pay someone to apply for financial assistance. Organizations like the government's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don't charge to apply. And check the credentials of anyone who contacts you claiming to be from FEMA, another federal or state agency, or your insurance company.
- Similarly, don't pay someone to file an insurance claim for you. Contact your agent or insurers directly.
- Don't provide confidential information like bank account or Social Security numbers (SSNs) to anyone you haven't thoroughly checked out. Government and state officials don't ask for this type of information.
- Unsolicited calls -- ones you didn't initiate -- especially those that urge you to act now, are probably worth ignoring.
- Don't pay upfront for work. It may be okay to pay a deposit or a staged proportion of the cost once you've checked the provider out, but the final payment should come when the work is complete.
- Likewise, don't pay with cash, gift cards, Bitcoin or money-wire, all of which cannot be traced or recovered. Pay by credit card if you can.
- Don't pay to rent a home -- even a deposit -- until you've visited and checked the place, the owner, and the lease.
- Watch out for fake fundraisers, whether online, including crowdfunding, or calling at your door, phoning, texting or email. Ideally, give to charities you already know. If you don't know them and want to give, check if they're listed at charitywatch.org and make sure that whoever you're dealing with is legitimately connected with them.
- If possible, make your donations by credit card. And never pay by the untraceable methods listed above.
- Get multiple bids for repair and clearance work and double-check specific damage reports from inspectors, especially for roof repairs. Crooks know you probably can't get on the roof so it's easy for them to spin a story about the severity of the damage.
- Monitor local media services for alerts about specific scams in your neighborhood or city.
Whether you're directly affected by a disaster or not, you should always beware of scammers wherever you live. They may be selling flood-damaged vehicles, pretending to be a distressed friend or relative, or using another ruse to make you think the emergency affects you personally.
You'll find coverage on all of these topics as well as our earlier issues dealing with emergency scams on the Scambusters website.
You'll also find more information on available aid at FEMA.gov.
If you suspect you have been scammed, file a report with law enforcement and the Department of Justice's National Center for Disaster Fraud.
This Week's Scam Alerts
TSA Precheck: If you're flying away for Christmas or New Year breaks, be on your guard and watch out for phishing emails and websites pretending to be the TSA PreCheck airport security service, complete with lookalike logos. Check our recent report on this scam at Fake Websites Trick Travelers Into Airport Security Pass Scam.
WhatsApp Emergency: Scammers have started using the WhatsApp messaging service instead of phone calls to pretend to be a friend or relative in distress and needing emergency funds wired to them. Check out their story with other friends and relatives before providing help. Odds are that it's a scam.
Zelle Fraud: Thousands, maybe millions, of dollars are being stolen from bank accounts from people who use the Zelle online money transfer service. Victims receive a phone call, text or email claiming there's been fraudulent activity on their account, and they must "Zelle themselves" to get it back. There are many variations of this scam, which is extremely active right now. Never Zelle yourself and check any fraud warnings directly with your bank. Find more information at Understanding Fraud & Scams.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.