Hurricane scams are not new, but in the internet and social media age, they not only pursue their victims in person, but also online and with technologically-devious phone approaches. Victims are often vulnerable seniors or disabled individuals, but can just as easily be professionals, executives and entrepreneurs distracted or even overwhelmed by the stresses of a post-disaster crisis at home.
You Too Can Be Scammed
Clinical psychologist Vaile Wright, Phd, a senior director with the American Psychological Association and an expert in stress, anxiety and trauma, explains why even individuals in strong command of most aspects of their lives can fall prey to hurricane scammers: “Stress, whether from a natural disaster or any type of acute stressor, can affect our ability to make decisions, especially decisions based on goals and not emotions or impulses. So what often happens is that fear and anger may cause someone to act impulsively without thinking through the consequences. It’s not about how educated someone is, but their perception of the stressor and proximity to danger they may feel.”
Here’s how one of the classic hurricane scams works: Predatory repair company owners (or those pretending to be experienced contractors), roam storm-savaged neighborhoods in pickups, looking for a quick hit. The pitch is typically, ‘I’m working on a house nearby this week and can get you back in your place faster than your insurance company. Let me give you a quick estimate for that roofing/siding/tree removal/remodeling job since I’ve got my guys in the neighborhood already. It’ll save you time and money.’
The estimate is never in writing. The deposit demanded is always in cash and unsuspecting homeowners desperate to return to something resembling normalcy faster — especially those with weighty responsibilities — fall prey to another “Chuck in a truck” ripoff.
“Homeowners may pay much more than they should have to fix the damage, sometimes having to pay multiple contractors for the same work. In some cases, homeowners could even lose their homes,” Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of student affairs at Baylor Law School observed. As an attorney, he works with insurance scam victims.
Home Repair Scams
Some of the scammers find their victims on the Internet. CISA, the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, warns Americans to remain on alert for malicious cyber activity targeting disaster victims.
“Exercise caution in handling emails with hurricane-related subject lines, attachments, or hyperlinks,” the agency advises. “In addition, be wary of social media pleas, texts, or door-to-door solicitations relating to severe weather events.” CISA specifically warns about these scams that you may encounter:
- “Some scammers pretend to be government officials, safety inspectors or utility workers who say immediate work is required. Ask for IDs. If anyone asks you for money or your financial information, like your bank account or credit card number, it’s a scam.”
- CISA also notes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t charge application fees to request help. “If someone wants money to help you qualify for FEMA funds, it may be a scam.”
You might get a phone call about an insurance claim or policy after a hurricane tears through your town. Perhaps the caller says he’s from your insurer gathering information about policy holders needing help. The Federal Communications Commission, which addresses phone-based scams, says to hang up and call your insurance company directly at the number on your card or policy paperwork.
“Contractors and home improvement companies may also call claiming to be partners with your insurance provider,” notes the FCC. “Never give policy numbers, coverage details, or other personal information to companies with whom you have not entered into a contract,” the agency cautions.
In either of these scenarios, the agency warns, the scammer might use a technique called “spoofing” to make it appear that the caller is local or a well-known business, rather than an offshore criminal ring. Among the FCC’s tips for avoiding a spoof after a hurricane are:
- Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers.
- If you do take a call you think is from a legitimate organization, do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with a simple yes or no.
- Never give out personal information or account numbers to a caller unless you initiated an inquiry to your insurance company’s number.
- If you get a call from someone claiming to represent a government agency or company with whom you do business, hang up and call the number you have on file or that’s listed on the organization’s official website. (Don’t rely on one emailed or text messaged to you unsolicited that might be fake.)
- If you have a voice mail account, be sure to add a password to it. Some hackers spoof your number to gain access to your voice mail if it isn’t password-protected.
For homeowners who need temporary housing while their homes are being repaired, rental listings are another target-rich opportunity for scammers. “If you’re looking for a place to live, steer clear of people who tell you to wire money or who ask for security deposits or rent before you’ve met or signed a lease,” CISA cautions.
There are two main ways scammers do this: “Some hijack a real rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information and placing the modified ad on another site,” the agency advises. “Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent or great amenities.” (The FBI reports that those have been increasing dramatically in recent years.)
Property owners and real estate brokers sometimes find their home sales listings pirated from a site like Zillow onto Craigslist or their own make-believe rental sites. The original valid listing with its photos and description is cloned into fake rental listings by con artists intent on scamming victims out of deposits and potentially personal information through fraudulent credit checks.
The National Association of Realtors offers these suggestions for spotting scam listings in an informative post on its consumer site, Realtor.com:
- If you can get the address, search for it. If the address pops up ‘for sale,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a scam; many owners will try to rent and sell a property at the same time. But you should be cautious if you want to proceed.
- No address? Try searching for the images. Most browsers give you this option. In Chrome, for example, right-click on the image, scroll to ‘“Search Google for image,’ and you’ll see a list of search results that also used the picture. Seeing it on multiple sites? Open up a few, and see if the ad is the same or if rent prices and contact info vary widely.
It’s quite possible that the same property images will be recycled across states as new storms and other disasters strike. AARP notes that scammers follow the headlines, and hurricanes make for very appealing ones to those preying on emergency-stricken individuals at a stressful time in their lives.
Housing listings are a new way of finding marks, the association observes. They and other advocates don’t want you to be the next one, unnecessarily victimized twice.