When a hurricane brings scammers knocking, ‘you are the best protection against fraud’
Hurricane Ian brought the deadliest destruction Florida has seen in years, and with it, likely billions of dollars in damages. Florida officials and property insurers are warning people left vulnerable after the storm to not become victims twice and fall prey to common scams.
Following Ian, Attorney General Ashley Moody dispatched consumer protection investigators to newly-opened Disaster Recovery Centers in Southwest Florida. The centers are located in Shannon Staub Library in Sarasota County and Joseph P.D. Alessandro Office Complex and Lakes Regional Library in Lee County. Investigators will be there daily, distributing information about how to spot, avoid and report scams, and helping consumers file price gouging complaints.
According to attorneys, there are several different kinds of scams to look out for if you are a survivor of Hurricane Ian.
“If it doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not right,” said Kathy Grunewald, disaster coordinator attorney at Legal Services of North Florida. As an advocate for post-disaster victims, she said it’s a particularly fertile time for scammers looking to make money off people whose homes and livelihood have been damaged. Most people, she said, are just desperate to get back to normal and may sign a contract that will leave them worse off than before.
“Don’t let someone pressure you into signing something,” Grunewald said.
Michael Flynn, a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law, said some populations are more at risk than others. The elderly he said, are a major target.
“Minority communities will also be targeted,” Flynn said, “The immigrant population may not be so familiar with what goes on here.”
One of the most common types of fraud Grunewald said, comes in the form of general contractors who flood into the area after a disaster. Many come from outside the state and may be unlicensed or working with sub-par materials. Flynn said to always ask a potential contractor to give you their licensure number, and check to see if it’s legit. An unwillingness to provide their license or a written estimate, and a request for payment up-front are all major red flags.
“Make sure you are satisfied with the work, and that it complies with all state and local codes,” Flynn said, before you pay the full amount.
Grunewald also warns against contracts that contain an AOB, or Assignment of Benefits. That allows a contractor to communicate directly with the insurance company and file claims on your behalf. Though it may seem tempting, cutting yourself out of the process will result in you losing control over your claim and you may be left with unfinished or shoddy repairs. Citizens, the state’s not-for-profit property insurer, recommends you deal with your insurance directly first, before signing any contracts. The three Disaster Recovery Centers can help you meet with your insurance provider and begin the process.
Flynn recommends getting at least three written estimates to compare and using a contractor that comes recommended from a friend or family member. Grunewald said to look for an established contractor in your area who will have local credibility. You can also check the Better Business Bureau for ratings. But it’s ultimately up to the homeowner to do their due diligence.
“You are the best protection against fraud,” Flynn said.
Fraud is not limited to contractors. Grunewald said people may also come into the area posing as FEMA employees. They may even be wearing a false uniform. These scammers may try to get you to pay an “application fee” or hand over personal information. FEMA warns to never answer unsolicited phone calls or emails from someone claiming to be a FEMA agent. If you are approached by an agent, you may ask to see their badge. A FEMA agent will never ask for any money. They will ask for your personal information for your assistance application, so make sure you are dealing with a legitimate agent.
Scammers may also take the guise of charities and go knocking on doors, claiming they can provide assistance if you give them your identifying information. Grunewald said there is no reason to ever hand over personal information to a legitimate humanitarian group. For those trying to help, avoid donating to fraudulent causes. The Attorney General recommends using a well-established charity or using Charity Navigator. When donating to a crowdsourcing platform, research the donee and search to see if there are any duplicate campaigns on other crowdsourcing networks. Scammers may copy a legitimate campaign to attract donors.
Both Flynn and Grunewald agree it is best to avoid getting involved with a scammer in the first place. But if you do become a victim, there are some avenues you can take. Grunewald said that every county in Florida has a not-for-profit legal services organization that should be able to help you if you are the victim of a scam.
In addition, “you can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office online,” Grunewald said, “and if someone has actually stolen money from you, you can go to your local police or sheriff’s office.”
But Flynn and Grunewald said even if you are able to initiate a lawsuit against scammers, their transient nature can make them hard to serve with a lawsuit, and even harder to collect from if you win. Flynn said you may be able to use the Florida Homeowners Construction Recovery Fund, which helps homeowners collect from an uncollectable contractor. Homeowners can only access the fund after a final judgement in civil court, an arbitration award or an order of restitution from the Florida Construction Industry Licensing Board. The compensation is limited to $25,000.