Consumer IQ

Superstorm Scams to Watch Out For

scam

Depending on the time of year and your tolerance for hot and humid weather, I’m either very lucky or unlucky to have lived in Florida for the last decade. But one of the fringe benefits of residing in the Sunshine State is that you become an expert on storm scams.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy, which has left parts of the northeastern United States underwater last week, I’d like to share a few secrets I’ve learned. Who knows, it may save you hundreds — even thousands — of dollars the next time disaster strikes.

Here come the storm chasers

Scammers love bad weather. When I lived in South Florida, and we evacuated the low-lying coastal area where we lived as a hurricane approached, we witnessed caravans of trucks with tree-removal service companies from as far away as Texas driving into the storm. They wanted to be the first on the scene to “help” homeowners clear the debris.

There’s a fine line between providing a valuable service to victims and preying on them, and I wanted to give these tree-removal companies the benefit of the doubt.

Then they came knocking at my door after a storm. ”Do you need any help removing the trees in your front yard?” they asked. Their price: $2,000 — per tree.

Scam!

How to avoid it

Here’s the thing: if anyone offers you anything after a natural disaster, be skeptical. Very skeptical. It could be legit, but never let your guard down, even if they claim to represent a known organization, charity or government.

The Better Business Bureau says preparation is the best way to prevent a scam, and I agree. They recommend phoning your insurance company before the storm hits to find out what’s covered, making only essential repairs when a disaster strikes, and then taking your time after the event to get several estimates. Don’t rush into anything.

The BBB also agrees with my advice to be wary of workers going door-to-door. Get everything in writing, they add, never pay in full in advance, and do not pay in cash.

You don’t have to be hit to be a victim

Unfortunately, scammers cast a wide net when they’re looking for easy money. The bad news is that you don’t have to be anywhere near the storm’s path to get suckered.

Warnings from the Department of Justice, the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud make it clear — anyone can be a victim.

I’ll summarize their advice: be skeptical. (Sound familiar?)

The government warns against responding to unsolicited email offers from charities or anyone purporting to be with a charity via social media applications like Facebook.

Fraudsters like to copy names of well-known relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross. If you want to make a donation to one of these organizations, find your own way to their websites — don’t follow a link. The link you get from a random stranger could take you to a fraudulent site.

One other thing: don’t let anyone pressure you into making a contribution to a charity and avoid giving cash. Writing a check or using a credit card means you can still recover some of your money later. If you give a scammer paper money, it’s gone forever.

What’s different about Sandy?

In most respects, Sandy is like every other hurricane that comes churning along this time of year. It’s large, unpredictable and destructive, just like most other Atlantic cyclones. But this one is different in one important respect: it struck the media capital of the world — New York City. That means a lot of folks took notice, including the bad guys.

I would expect the scams that spin off from Sandy to become legendary. We’re still in the early stages of the cleanup, and many criminals are just getting started with their nefarious schemes.

All the more reason for you to be on your guard — wherever you are.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.