How to Spot Hurricane Relief Scams
Due to flooding from heavy rainfall and insanely fierce winds, hurricanes can wreak devastation on entire cities and states. Entire city blocks can experience destruction, downed trees, floods, and beach erosion can ruin a multitude of properties, the power grid can suffer costly damage, and tragically, lives can be lost.
In the wake of these natural disasters, we often see the best of humanity, uniting to bring relief to those who are hurting.
Unfortunately, the aftermath of hurricanes also brings the dregs of society crawling out from the sewers. These bad actors look to capitalize on the misfortune of others, and stage sophisticated grifts. Whether they execute their schemes online, through phone calls, or by going door to door, these criminals prey on the compassion and vulnerability of others for their own financial gain.
How can you protect yourself from falling victim to hurricane relief scams? After a natural disaster, it’s vital to remain alert and know what to look for in order to avoid these scams.
How relief scams work
Where there’s a hurricane, there’s a hurricane relief scam waiting to fool people. Hurricane relief scam artists may pose as charitable organizations or even Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials.
These scams often create new organizations and have a sudden online presence. Their websites may include bogus testimonials from past charitable recipients (even though the site and organization don’t have searchable history). They’ll actively solicit donations and quickly disappear — the official-looking website of a hurricane relief scam may be shut down within a couple of months after the hurricane.
Although there are a plethora of methods employed by scammers, the scams can mostly be broken down into three categories. These categories include:
Charitable solicitation scams can utilize robocalls, email phishing schemes, and bogus website links to grift for donations. These scammers will often share heart-wrenching, tragic stories and, in order to steal more money from you. may ask for credit card or check donations only.
Charitable scammers may also pose as representatives of credible charities. These impostors may pose as representatives from government relief organizations, but ask you to share your confidential information — including bank account information and your Social Security number.
Price gouging scams are another popular way for hurricane con artists to steal your money. These con artists offer goods and services at an extremely high markup, and demand immediate payment. Price gouging usually impacts necessities, such as gas, food, or temporary housing.
Disaster insurance fraud can inundate insurance companies. Typically, the fraudulent claims are from people who aren’t even in the area impacted by the hurricane. This could tie up claims agents, who must investigate each claim. It can also keep money from those who desperately need it after losing everything in the hurricane.
Another widespread hurricane relief scam example comes from criminals who may pose as housing inspectors or contractors who may offer quick repair for any property damage you’ve incurred, but demand money upfront. They abscond with your money, and the repairs are never completed. This is known as contract fraud.
Examples of hurricane relief scams
Since the turn of the 21st century, hurricanes have ravaged the U.S. Although the storms vary in ferocity, each leaves those in impacted areas reeling and picking up the pieces. In the most devastating hurricanes to hit the nation, hurricane relief scammers have stolen millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the worst examples of hurricane relief scams:
Hurricane Katrina Scams
Striking New Orleans, Louisiana and surrounding areas in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes on record. Over 1,800 people lost their lives and the affected areas caused over $100 billion in damages. Sadly, the scammers came out in droves.
According to the FBI, charity, contract, investment fraud, and embezzlement cases took the bureau years to pursue and bring the criminals to justice. More than 900 defendants were brought up on disaster fraud charges related to Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Ian Scams
Hurricane Ian, a category 5 hurricane, made landfall in southwest Florida on September 28, 2022. It was the third costliest hurricane on record, and caused 149 deaths and $109.5 billion in damages across the state.
In Ian’s immediate aftermath, federal law enforcement agencies issued warnings of disaster fraud. Cybercriminals jumped at the opportunity to try to access FEMA relief funds for victims. These online hackers used WhatsApp (among other sites) to direct hurricane victims to a bogus federal claim site.
Hurricane Maria Scams
In 2017, Hurricane Maria tore a path of destruction through much of the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico alone, almost 3,000 people lost their lives in the disaster.
Five years after Hurricane Maria, an Atlanta woman was arrested on major disaster fraud, wire fraud, government theft, and money laundering charges for her part in hurricane relief scams: Tiffany Brown scammed the federal government.
Brown’s contracting firm, Tribute Contracting LLC, scammed a contract out of FEMA to assist Maria’s victims in Puerto Rico. Brown secured a contract for $156 million to feed those left in the hurricane’s wake. But she failed to deliver and fraudulently tried to access other government funds.
How to avoid disaster relief scams
The prevalence of disaster relief scams has caused the Department of Justice, FBI, FEMA, and the FCC to issue warnings to help raise public awareness. There are signs to look for and ways to protect your online security that will help you avoid hurricane relief scams. The ways to avoid falling victim to these schemes include:
- Ask for verification (such as a government ID) from people claiming to represent government relief programs. If an “official” contacts you via email, look for the “.gov” in their email address.
- Avoid solicitations from those claiming to represent federal relief agencies. Federal agencies will never ask for your donations.
- If a robocall, an email, or a private social media message demands an immediate donation, immediately hang up or block the contact. Aggressive demands are never real.
- If you interact with a website claiming to represent a charity and feel something’s off, pay close attention to your credit report in the weeks that follow. This could be an attempt to steal your identity or personal information.
- Never follow a link to donate: Go directly to a charity website to make your donation. Make sure that the site is secure and has been indexed by Google.
- Research any contractor and ensure their credibility before hiring them to repair your property. Pay attention to reviews, and avoid companies that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Legitimate hurricane relief organizations
The good news is that in a sea of hurricane relief scammers, there are islands of great and trustworthy charities. If you’ve suffered in the aftermath of a hurricane, there are organizations with solid reputations who can come to your aid.
If you’re the victim of a natural disaster, you shouldn’t have to worry about hurricane relief scams when you’re desperate for help. Check out the What is My IP Address blog for vital tips on how to protect your online security, and the latest trends in cyber crime.
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