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FTC warns consumers about disaster scams and related donation scams

The agency says double-checking the legitimacy of vendors and charities is worth the effort

Charity scam or fraud concept
Photo (c) kroach - Getty Images
With the flooding ravaging Missouri and eastern Kentucky and fires continuing to rage in California, scammers are trying to take advantage of victims by stealing their money and personal information. Some criminals have even continued to haunt victims after they've gotten back on their feet.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says there are three primary targets of the scammers: people who may be looking for government assistance to rebuild their homes and businesses, people who need help removing debris, and those who want to donate money to disaster victims.

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The agency offered several tips to current disaster victims and anyone else who might face schemes like these in the future. They include:

Be skeptical of anyone promising immediate clean-up and repairs. Some scammers may quote outrageous prices, demand payment up front, or lack the skills needed.

Check them out. FTC officials say scammers have been known to pose as companies that can help clean up debris or repair essential processes in a home like an HVAC system. “Before you pay, ask for IDs, licenses, and proof of insurance. Don’t believe any promises that aren’t in writing,” said FTC official Gema de las Heras.

Look out for rental listing scams. Victims of floods and fires often need someplace to live while they’re rebuilding or waiting for the situation to improve enough that they can return to their homes. The FTC says to steer clear of anyone who tells you to wire money or ask for security deposits or rent before you’ve met or signed a lease.

Never pay by wire transfer, gift card, cryptocurrency, or cash. Using one of these methods to pay someone could be a win-lose of epic proportions for consumers. “Scammers ask for these types of payments because, once they’ve collected the money, it’s almost impossible for you to get it back,” warned de las Heras. “And never make the final payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied.”

Guard your personal information. Only scammers will say they’re a government official and then demand money, credit card information, bank account information, or your Social Security number.

Know that FEMA doesn’t charge application fees. Government agencies don’t charge “application fees.” If someone wants money to help you qualify for FEMA funds, the likelihood of it being a scam is high.

Spot disaster-related charity scams. While crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe offer tips on how to prevent being ripped off by a donation scammer, the better bet might be to use the online databases of organizations that can help you research the validity of a charity.

Here are four organizations that offer reports and ratings about how charitable organizations spend donations and how they conduct business:

For those who anticipate that their donation will be tax-deductible, the only way to guarantee that is by using the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization Search. By entering a few details about the organization, the IRS will tell you if it qualifies.

It may seem redundant, but taking extra steps to search for an organization via the state charity regulators at nasconet.org could help verify if an organization is registered to ask for donations.

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