After disasters sweep through an area, an unfortunate reality usually follows: fraudulent offers of funding and/or services to those regaining their bearings in the first hours, days and weeks of recovery.
Heidi Copeland, UF/IFAS Extension Leon County family and consumer sciences agent and accredited financial counselor, says the best defense against scammers is to be cautious when approached by those who offer help. Below, she addresses how to best face the days ahead.
Q. What are some red flags that may indicate an offer of assistance is fraudulent?
A. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Anyone requesting full payment up front or payment in cash should be more closely considered. I want to emphasize that: Do not send full payments up front or pay in cash.
Know who you are working with, and if you do not, research them. Ask for their license and insurance details, and then verify that information.
Q. How can people gauge the legitimacy of an organization offering assistance?
Depending on the work a company performs, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services may be the place to search for their license. For instance, if you need someone to move your furniture, FDACS would have the information; if you need a contractor, search DBPR.
Lastly, if possible, have an attorney review any contracts.
Q. What are some known resources people can reach out to for assistance?
A. Your first step should be to report any and all damage to your insurance company.
The Red Cross, as well as local organizations – think churches, schools, food banks, etc. – are also great for accessing recovery resources. Calling 2-1-1 can connect you to local information.
Q. If someone is the victim of a scam, what should they do?
A. The best advice I have is to be proactive and not allow yourself to become a victim of a scam. For any assistance you accept or workers you hire, be sure to keep records as best you can, including reviewing and signing a contract ahead of any work to be performed.
If you suspect you’ve been scammed, follow the advice of the Federal Trade Commission, and if warranted, report the incident to the agency. However, you must accept that nothing may come of reporting, which is why I say to avoid being the victim of a scam in the first place.
Prior to a storm, people are asked to be self-sufficient for a minimum of three days. Help will come, but unfortunately, it does take time; in the meantime, all a person can do is research to identify the legitimate help versus those preying on vulnerable people.