Crime and tragedies bring out the best in some people and the worst in others.
As if the loss of property and physical injuries from the floods, tornadoes and wildfires occurring across the country were not bad enough, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) issued a warning stating that skilled criminals are preying on the victims of the disasters.
Sadly, residents and business people already victimized by the natural disasters are being victimized a second time by unscrupulous scam artists.
"In disaster situations, there are often those who are ready to take advantage of such situations," said state coordinating officer Jimmy Gianato. "Be especially alert for phone or door-to-door solicitors who hand out flyers and promise to speed up the insurance or building permit process, and those who ask for large cash deposits or advance payments in full."
Some shady criminals are also misrepresenting themselves as FEMA and other government and relief agencies. I'd like to pass on FEMA's guide to protecting yourself from these crooks.
A FEMA or U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) shirt or jacket is not absolute proof of someone's affiliation with an agency. FEMA advises you to ask to see their laminated photo identification card. If they don't have one, don't deal with them - and then call the police. FEMA and SBA inspectors may come out, but they will have proper photo identification. Also, FEMA and SBA inspectors never charge applicants for disaster assistance or for inspections.
Some scammers have asked for upfront money to be put on a list or demanded fees to fill out the disaster loan application. Under no circumstances are FEMA and other agency representatives allowed to accept money. FEMA inspectors assess damage but they do not hire or endorse specific contractors or determine eligibility.
Some shady contractors claim to be "FEMA certified," but FEMA does not certify contractors. FEMA does recommend that you use reliable, licensed contractors. Check their references, and ask for proof of insurance. Insist on a written contract and get guarantees in writing. Lastly, never pay in cash. Pay by check.
Tom Miller, the Iowa Attorney General, noted that home and business repair con-artists often move in after a disaster because the conditions give them an edge.
"Hundreds of people are eager to get clean-up or repairs done, and there may be a shortage of local contractors to do all of the work," Miller said. "There may be money around because of disaster or insurance payments, and people may be in a rush to get back to normal."
Even if you don't live or have a business in the devastated areas, scam artists are still out to fleece you by appealing to your good natural and generosity.
Via the Internet, e-mail and phone calls, scam artists are soliciting your money to help the poor victims of the country's floods, tornadoes and wildfires. As in the past with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Minnesota bridge collapse, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the earthquake in China, these scammers contact potential victims and ask for donations to phony charitable organizations.
The FBI advises the following:
Do not respond to unsolicited (spam) e-mail.
Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as officials soliciting via e-mail for donations.
Do not click on links contained within an unsolicited e-mail.
Be cautious of e-mail claiming to contain pictures in attached files, as the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.
To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to recognized organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.
Validate the legitimacy of the organization by directly accessing the recognized charity or aid organization's website rather than following an alleged link to the site.
Attempt to verify the legitimacy of the non-profit status of the organization by using various Internet-based resources, which also may assist in confirming the actual existence of the organization.
Do not provide personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions: providing such information may compromise your identify and expose you to identity theft.
"Scammers and criminals come forward after many of these tragic events and you should be wary of unsolicited requests for money," said FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko in Washington, D.C. "People should feel free to make donations, just make sure you know who you are dealing with and where the donations are going.
"This way you can make sure your money really makes a difference and helps out a needy person, not a greedy criminal," Kolko added.
If you are a victim of the recent disasters, don't be victimized twice by con men. And if you wish to help the victims by making a monetary contribution, be sure that the charity organization is legitimate.
If you suspect a crime, you can call FEMA's Inspector General's office at 800-323-8603 or your local FBI office.