Agencies warn about scams targeting recent extreme weather victims: Internet Scambusters #1,050
Scammers love extreme weather incidents - storms, floods, snow white-outs, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
And with recent events across most of the US, they're busy tricking victims into paying for things that are free or posing as officials and contractors to hoodwink them with costly offers of help and repair.
In this week's issue, we highlight the biggest weather scams hitting many regions right now, with details of how to spot and avoid them.
Let's get started…
Scammers Storm Into Extreme Weather Regions
Fierce storms, floods, and extreme cold across many parts of the US in recent weeks have prompted a new rash of weather scams.
Several federal and local government agencies have issued warnings that con artists are on the prowl, trying to take advantage of people whose safety, homes, and power supplies were affected in the storms, which ran through much of December and January in various parts of the country.
Even those not affected by storms can be caught out with freeze-related plumbing and heating issues as fraudsters pose as utility company officials and contractors, ready to take your money and run.
The biggest scams are crooks pretending to be from utility companies threatening to cut electricity supplies if you don't pay them immediately.
Second are the fake contractors who demand upfront payments for the work, which is often done poorly, uncompleted, or not done at all. These characters are usually unbonded and uninsured, so it can be hard to recover money lost to their scams.
Last week, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urged homeowners and renters to be on the lookout for the tricksters, most of whom will be imposters claiming to be here to help. For example:
- Phony safety inspectors or utility workers saying work needs to be done urgently, for safety's sake. You absolutely must verify their ID - not with them but independently via the phone or website.
- People posing as officials from FEMA, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. Again, verifying ID is essential.
- Others claiming they can help you get ahold of FEMA funds in return for a fee. They may actually do this, but the fact is you don't need to pay. Just contact Fema.gov directly.
- Unlicensed contractors offering to do repairs, remove debris, or general clean-up in the aftermath. The only thing they'll clean up on is your wallet. If they demand payment upfront or won't give you copies of their license and other credentials, they're probably scammers.
- Bogus landlords advertising rental listings for people who may have been displaced by the storms. Make sure you inspect the home (inside as well as out), check out the landlord's reputation, and read the lease carefully.
- Charity scammers. They come out in their hordes in the wake of any weather or other natural disaster, setting up fake websites either to steal your money or use your credit card and other confidential information for identity theft. Don't be misled by familiar sounding names and logos. Read the FTC's guidance on wise donating at How to Donate Wisely and Avoid Charity Scams.
In most cases, the crooks will ask for payment or deposits either as cash or in some untraceable form such as money wires, gifts cards, mobile payment apps, or even Bitcoin. And, of course, they'll want it upfront because they're not going to do the work!
Echoing this, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) notes that anyone claiming to be a federal official who asks for money is an imposter. And you cannot rely on caller ID to tell you who is on the line because scammers use computer-driven techniques to spoof calls, making it look like they're from official sources.
"If someone calls claiming to be a government official, hang up and call the number listed on that government agency's official website," the Commission says.
"Never reveal any personal information unless you've confirmed you're dealing with a legitimate official. Workers and agents who knock on doors of residences are required to carry official identification and show it upon request, and they may not ask for or accept money."
The FCC also warns against scam post-disaster insurance claims. Fraudsters may contact potential targets claiming to be with their insurer or agent. Again, you should hang up and contact your agent or the company directly. If you have flood coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, call them direct at 1-800-638-6620.
Moreover, beware of fake news cropping up on social media. This could be just from time-wasting jokers, but it also could feature fake news warning of problems and inviting the reader to make contact via a fraudulent website or phone number.
Double check any story before acting. In particular, be wary about crowdfunding pages that tell a tragic tale and invite donations. These claims and requests are not always vetted, notes the FCC.
In addition, several state governments and utility firms have issued separate alerts about those cut-off threats.
One of the nation's largest investor-owned utilities, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, said last week that it had received thousands of reports of scam attempts last year. And it's not alone.
The key points to know are that power companies simply don't threaten to cut off supplies at short notice and they don't ask for payment through the sort of untraceable means listed above. Utilities generally have a whole, somewhat lengthy process for dealing with past due accounts, which includes sending out written notices.
Ignore threats of immediate cut-offs without any prior warning or discussion. If you get one of these calls, hang up. If you're behind with payments or if you receive any notification about reconnection or storm damage that demands payment, check directly with the utility company.
Bad weather has wreaked havoc across much of the country. Don't make the weather damage worse by falling for a scam. Pass it on.
This Week's Scam Alerts
Not Netflix: Video streaming company Netflix is frequently a target for scammers, and the past couple of weeks have seen a surge in emails and texts pretending to come from the company. The message says the person's account has been suspended and offers reconnection via a clickable link. It's a phishing scam aimed at getting your sign-on and credit card details.
Wells Fargo Repayment: One of the nation's biggest banks, Wells Fargo, got into hot water a couple years ago for allegedly illegal practices relating, among other things, to misapplied payments, wrongful foreclosures, and incorrect fees. Sixteen million accounts were said to have been affected. Now, the official Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action that requires the bank to pay more than $2 billion to customers who were allegedly harmed. If you think you're one of them and haven't been contacted or received payment, contact the bank. If that doesn't resolve the issue, says the CFPB, file a complaint.
Furthermore, the Bureau warns that anyone who contacts you as a supposed third party and claims they can get you compensation (for a fee) or asks for money upfront is a scammer. The CFPB never charges to receive a redress payment. Nor does it ask for personal data before sending out a payment.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!