Scammers and con artists may see the aftermath of a natural disaster as an opportunity to take advantage of Louisiana residents trying to rebuild and get their lives back to normal. With June 1 marking the start of the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell reminds Louisiana consumers to make sure their homes, families and personal identities remain safe during storm season.
"Unfortunately, hurricane season is also a time when unscrupulous con artists try to profit from your misfortune. In emergency situations, it pays to be on the lookout for scams," Attorney General Caldwell said. "In past hurricane seasons, we have seen scammers exacerbate the damage caused by storms by stealing money set aside for home repairs or even posing as government agents."
Attorney General Caldwell urges Louisiana residents to recognize and avoid these five common disaster-related scams:
5 Disaster Scams to Avoid
1. Identity Theft
Make sure to safeguard your personal information in the event of an evacuation.
Assume that your personal items may not be there when you go back home either due to disaster destruction or poor security, so it is important to take your sensitive personal documents with you or put them in a secure, waterproof location such as a safe deposit box or home safe. Personal information items may include your passport, credit cards, checkbooks, car registration, home title, insurance contracts, college degrees, health insurance cards, Social Security cards, and birth and marriage certificates.
2. Home Repair Scams
Before allowing someone to repair your damaged home, verify his or her credentials.
Even in the aftermath of a disaster, it is still important to obtain more than one estimate for repairs. Always check on the qualifications and credentials of anyone working on your home. Find out the contractor's address and verify it. Get the name of the contractor's insurance company. Contact the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors at (800) 256-1392 to make sure everyone working on your home is licensed and to see if the contractor has any consumer disputes or violations on record. If a down payment is required, remember that it should not exceed 10 percent of the total price. Always get a guarantee in writing and keep a signed, legible copy of the contract in a safe place. Pay by check or money order and keep all receipts, contracts, and change orders.
3. Price Gouging
During a declared state of emergency, report price gouging to your local law enforcement officials, district attorney, or the attorney general's office.
Price gouging occurs when a seller prices goods or services much higher than is reasonably verifiable under market conditions. The price gouging statute prohibits the raising of prices above the pre-emergency levels when there is no accompanying national or regional market commodity shortage. This means that sellers of gasoline and petroleum products, hotels, motels, and retailers are prohibited from raising prices during a declared state of emergency unless they incur a verifiable increase in the price they have to pay as part of doing business. It's important to remember that not all price increases are considered price gouging. Product shortages, rig and refinery shut downs, and global markets can all cause the price of goods and services to increase. These verifiable, market influenced cost increases may lawfully be passed on to the consumer. Suspected price gouging should be reported to your local law enforcement officials, district attorney, or the Louisiana Attorney General's Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 351-4889.
4. Phony Emergency Response Officials
Watch out for con-artists that pose as government officials or insurance adjusters.
Scammers take advantage of disaster victims by posing as government agency employees or insurance adjusters. Always confirm the identity of anyone who contacts you purporting to be from a government agency or insurance company. Ask for details in writing and be wary when the term “government approved” is used. Do not give out any information until you have checked with the actual agency or insurance company the person claims to represent. Never give cash on the spot to any individual who shows up claiming to be an insurance agent or disaster aid worker.
5. Fake Charities
Before donating, check to make sure the charity is legitimate.
The widespread use of social media provides fertile ground for scammers to exploit the generosity of Louisiana citizens wishing to donate to the victims of natural disasters. Scammers can almost instantly create the look and mission statement of a legitimate disaster-relief campaign or organization. Verify charities by going to www.guidestar.org to find out if the charity is actually an IRS 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Contact the Attorney General's Charitable Registration section, the Louisiana Secretary of State's Corporations Database and the Better Business Bureau before you donate.
To report contractor fraud, charity scams or other disaster-related fraud, contact the Louisiana Attorney General's Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 351-4889.