As if it’s not enough that communities hit by disaster have to go about rebuilding, it’s inevitable that the suffering will attract scammers, sometimes called “storm chasers,” companies that target vulnerable communities rebounding from a disaster and other scam artists.
That’s what the Indiana Department of Homeland Security is warning residents about in the 35 counties that received emergency declarations earlier this year after severe flooding.
These scammers will go door-to-door offering repairs and often do subpar work or don’t complete the work after receiving payment, which they often request up front.
“It’s sad that there are people out there who would take advantage of people who are distraught and have been through a horrible disaster and may be elderly or disabled,” said Erin Rowe, state director of emergency response and recovery for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “They call them storm chasers and there are some individuals and groups who have been identified.”
“You see a lot of folks in dire straits and they want to get things repaired as soon as possible,” said DHS Executive Director Bryan Langley. “But it’s important to do your due diligence and make sure you protect yourself. The biggest thing we want to communicate is that the threat is out there.”
There are some important precautions to take before any work is agreed on. Getting three written estimates and then researching each of the companies is good practice.
Don’t do anything spontaneously. Don’t sign any contracts or pay anyone at the initial contact. “Ask for licensing and use local contractors if you can,” Rowe said. “Get multiple estimates and make sure they’re bonded and insured — general liability, workman’s comp — and don’t pay until the work is done.”
“You see a little bit of everything,” said Communications Director David Hosick. “You have people coming in as contractors, trying to turn a quick buck as quickly as they can, and you even have people misrepresenting themselves as FEMA officials, DHS officials. There’s a wide breadth of ways people are trying to pull a fast one and it’s unfortunate.”
Scammers often pose as FEMA or DHS officials, so it’s imperative to make sure people are who they say they are by asking for identification. And it’s equally important to safeguard personal identification. FEMA and other government personnel will have an identification badge; a FEMA shirt or jacket is not the proper identification.
Sometimes the scammers will fill out online forms using stolen identities. “We don’t have hard data, but some of our recovery folks have heard of FEMA officials showing up at someone’s door to investigate a residence and the people at the residence knew nothing about the filing,” Langley said. “Obviously somebody used [the residence’s] identity to put together the filing.”
There are also plenty of scams involving charities and people should ask for the exact name, street address, phone number and website address of any charity and contact that charity before giving.
“What we’re trying to do as a state agency and as a supporting agency is work hand-in-glove with the Attorney General’s office, with FEMA, and other state agencies to generate awareness,” Langley said. “It’s important for us to engage our community partners our emergency management agency directors, mayors, county commissioners, so they can spread this information as well.”