Contractors repair damage to the roof of Weatherford City Hall the day after severe thunderstorms in Weatherford, Texas on Friday March 3, 2023.
Potential tornadoes, flooding, hail and strong winds swept through Texas Thursday, damaging homes and businesses.
Now come the scammers.
“Every weather event breeds unscrupulous contractors, and this week’s fires and tornadoes are no different,” said Monica Horton, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau North Central Texas. “Unfortunately, while many people seek help in times of disaster, there is also an increased risk of fraud and fraud.”
According to BBB North Central Texas, these are the most common scams natural disaster victims might encounter.
Storm Chasing Contractors
After storms, tornadoes and wildfires, some contractors try to take advantage of the victims.
The Better Business Bureau is warning homeowners to beware of “storm chasers” and out-of-town contractors courting business. While not all of these contractors are scammers, they may not be properly licensed, offer quick fixes, or make big promises they can’t keep.
When hiring a contractor, research the company first. Make sure it has the necessary licenses, insurance, and permits. Request a list of local references and get at least three quotes before signing a contract. Get everything in writing during the project and keep all receipts and contracts. Pay in installments until the work is complete.
Find certified craftsmen in your area here.
Assess the damage and take photos/videos: Document damage to your property. Wear protective clothing such as trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy shoes.
Limit Further Damage: Make minor, temporary repairs to your home to protect it from further damage and keep receipts.
Contact your insurer: ask about your coverage and specific enrollment requirements. Keep all receipts, including receipts for meals, temporary accommodation, or other expenses that may be covered by your policy. Your insurance company may have recommended contractors. Do not attempt any permanent repairs until you have received approval from your insurance company. Your insurer may not fully reimburse you for permanent repairs made without their authorization.
Do your research: Find companies you can trust on BBB.org. Get recommendations from friends and family.
Resist high-pressure sales: Some storm chasers will tell you that the only way to get a good deal is to hire the local contractor. When choosing a contractor, be proactive and don’t respond to sales pitches or door-to-door calls. Research them thoroughly and shop around before making a decision. You should never feel compelled to make a hasty decision or choose an unfamiliar contractor.
Be extra careful with door-to-door service providers: ask for ID. Search for a company name, phone number, and state license plate.
Don’t give insurance checks to contractors: Obtain an invoice from the contractor and pay him or her directly (preferably with a credit card that offers additional fraud protection). Do not sign any documents giving the contractor rights to your insurance claims. Contact your insurance company or agent if you have any questions.
Be careful when giving access to some places: While most contractors obey the law, be careful about allowing someone you don’t know to inspect your roof and other areas of your home that you don’t easy to reach or see for yourself. This includes attics, crawl spaces and ducts. An unethical contractor can do more damage to get work.
Ask about preventive features and installations: Check with your contractor about adding tornado-resistant features to protect against future damage.
If Monday’s storms damaged your home, you may need to stay elsewhere while repairs are made.
Remember that fraud is common in rental and vacation property deals, especially after disasters. Scams can appear on sites like Craigslist, Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, Homes.com, Apartments.com, Facebook Marketplace, Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway.com.
According to the BBB, 43% of online shoppers have encountered a fake listing and more than 5 million consumers have lost money to rental fraud.
Most commonly, scammers copy a property’s photo and description, post it online with their own contact information, and attempt to collect a security deposit and the first month’s rent from a victim. They are only allowed to communicate via email or sms claiming that they are out of country and unavailable to show the property. As soon as you send money, the scammer disappears.
You shouldn’t be paying upfront fees for unnoticed apartment rentals, the BBB says. Instead, take the time to review the details of the offers.
If you have been the victim of rental fraud:
- File a report with the local police.
- Go to BBB.org to view a company’s BBB Company Profile, including complaints and reviews, or to file a complaint or report a scam on Scam Tracker.
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint or by phone at 877-FTC-HELP.
- File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Watch out for price gouging. The cost of high-demand products skyrockets in times of emergencies such as severe storms. The Better Business Bureau says it is getting reports of high prices for gas, water and hotel rooms following a natural disaster.
If you suspect price gouging, report it to the Better Business Bureau by filing a complaint or go to BBB Ad Truth. You can also report it to the Texas Attorney General’s office. When reporting a complaint, follow these three tips:
- Describe the transaction as accurately as possible: include the name and address of the company, the names of all employees involved, and information about the price increase.
- Gather documentation: Have receipts, photos of products and their advertised prices, invoices, etc. that support the price gouging.
- Compare Prices: Compare similar products with other local and online sellers. It is important to note similarities and differences between brands, size/quantity, manufacturers, model numbers and prices.
Scammers often take advantage of vulnerable moments to fool donors. The BBB encourages people to give thoughtfully and avoid those who want to take advantage of generosity:
Visit Give.org to verify that a charity meets BBB standards for nonprofit accountability. A well-established charity is more likely to have the capacity and experience to address the situation quickly and also have an actionable track record. A newly formed organization will be more difficult to audit.
Take the time to find out how the organization wants to help the victims. See when the money collected is used. Watch out for vague appeals that don’t state the intended use of the funds.
Watch out for claims that 100% of donations go to victims. The organization is likely to still incur administrative and fundraising costs even if it uses other means to meet those costs.
Some crowdfunding sites only screen a few people asking for help after a disaster. It’s always safest to donate to people you know personally. If the post claims it intends to donate funds to a charity, consider donating directly to the charity’s website.
Do not click on charity links on unfamiliar websites or in text messages or emails. They can try to steal personal or financial information. Don’t assume that social media charity endorsements have already been vetted.
Some scammers try to trick you of your money and/or personal information by pretending to be someone else. They can contact you by phone, SMS or email. You can pretend to be a family member or friend asking for help in an emergency, or pretend to work for the government or a company with which you do regular business.
How to avoid scammer scams:
- Keep Calm: If you receive a fraudulent call, do not act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is or how threatening or intimidating the caller sounds.
- Don’t respond directly: Don’t respond to the call, text, or email. Instead, call the business or person directly to confirm the message, call, or email.
- Tell Someone or Get Help: When in doubt, call a friend, loved one, or the local BBB for a second opinion.
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Dalia Faheid is a reporter on Star-Telegram’s service journalism team. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.