Key information sources and 10 rules for avoiding disaster scams: Internet Scambusters #532
In Part Two of our special report on disaster scams and other incident-related mean tricks, we offer key guidelines to help you escape the crooks.
We show you how to sidestep the scams and verify the authenticity of the people and organizations you encounter.
We also signpost some of the government agencies and other resources you can turn to for official help and information.
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And now for the main feature...
Disaster Scams Special Part 2: What To Do and Where To Get Help
This is the second part of our special report on disaster scams -- the tricks that con artists, unscrupulous traders and sick-minded individuals play on us in the wake of natural disasters like storms and earthquakes and human-induced incidents like shooting tragedies and power station meltdowns.
In Part One we listed the 20 most frequent tricks both disaster victims and the public are likely to encounter.
This time, we provide the 10 rules you should follow to avoid also becoming a scam victim, and the places you can turn to for more help.
10 Rules for Avoiding Disaster Scams
1. Avoid charity and fundraising scams by:
* Only donating to established charities.
* Using your own resources to track down the charity -- don't rely on links or emails.
* Refusing to donate over the phone to telesales or other incoming calls. Initiate the donation yourself.
* Checking out charities' credentials with the Wise Giving Alliance.
* Thoroughly checking and vetting websites and Facebook pages supposedly set up by or for victims. If you can't be sure they're genuine, don't donate.
Check out these Scambusters issues...
...and this guidance from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
2. Avoid bogus contractors by:
* Refusing to deal with doorstep and telesales solicitors.
* Checking contractors' licenses and registrations with state and local boards and trade associations.
* Requesting copies of their liability insurance and references from past clients.
* Getting at least two professional opinions and competitive bids in writing.
* Keeping advance payments to a minimum -- don't pay in full upfront.
* Don't let people into your house whom you haven't positively identified.
3. Don't send cash or money-wire payments
Whether it's for a charitable donation or any other service supposedly related to the disaster, never wire money to individuals or organizations you don't know.
4. Use extreme caution with personal financial information
* Don't give your credit card number or bank account details to any individual or organization you don't know or haven't thoroughly checked out.
* Same goes for your Social Security number. In fact, it's extremely unlikely that anyone, anyone at all, would legitimately need this.
5. Use official or reputable sources for information
* Don't click on links or open attachments supposedly relating to the disaster.
* Use TV, radio and well known media websites to find out what's happening. They will also broadcast emergency contact and support numbers.
* Be skeptical of reports from other sources predicting impending disaster -- especially ones that are nearly impossible to predict, like earthquakes.
* If you get a call to evacuate your property from someone you don't know or can't positively identify, check it with emergency services.
* Don't send money in response to calls or email messages from supposed friends or relatives claiming to be caught up in the incident -- check their whereabouts with other friends or family members.
6. Avoid sales solicitations
* Never respond to spam. You'll likely be conned and your name will end up on a list of easy targets. Your credit card details will also be stolen.
* Don't buy from door-to-door sales people whether they're selling insurance equipment, supplies, or contracting services. If you need something, shop properly for it.
7. Check grants and investment opportunities
* Don't pay someone who claims they can secure a grant for you.
* Check supposed grant availability with official sources -- like your county, state and federal offices. Be especially wary of unsolicited incoming calls, letters and emails offering grants.
* Speak to a trusted financial advisor before investing in activities linked to the disaster aftermath. Don't make hasty decisions, especially if you're pressured to do so.
8. Don't pay to get a job
* Job lists connected with the disaster may be genuine but don't pay for them. Find out about opportunities for free from your local or state labor department.
* Be skeptical of disaster-related jobs advertised on sites like Craigslist.
* Don't pay upfront for things like background checks, travel, equipment or kits from supposed employers unless you have thoroughly vetted them.
9. Use common sense
* Stay calm and avoid impulsive actions. Think them through and discuss them with others.
* Be skeptical of things that your instincts tell you are difficult to believe, and be suspicious of people you don't know who contact you about something that will cost you money.
* Don't pass on chain letters and emails that are intended to invoke fear or incite hatred.
* If you receive hate mail or abusive social network postings tell the police.
10. Be prepared
Always maintain emergency supplies with reserves of water, canned food, batteries, candles, a portable radio, candles and matches. (See below for more information.)
If you have to buy equipment or supplies, it may be difficult to avoid price gouging, but when it's appropriate you should report it to your local consumer protection office.
Where to Get More Information and Help
We've already stressed the importance of using official sources, like state and local authorities, getting information from broadcasters and reputable websites, and checking out other organizations and individuals you're not familiar with.
And we've mentioned the Federal Trade Commission, an invaluable sources of information on fraud and scams.
Another useful source of help is the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF), a Department of Justice agency set up after Hurricane Katrina. It's a sort of clearinghouse for frauds relating to emergency incidents.
(Although this address curiously includes the words "oil spill," the site deals with all manner of disaster scam reports.)
NCDF works hand in hand with the FBI, whose site can also be searched with the words "disaster fraud" for more guidance:
If you're concerned for your safety or the victim of intimidation or abuse, contact law enforcement.
For more information, both on disaster preparedness generally and specifics like building a kit of emergency supplies, see the government's official readiness help site.
That site is operated by the key government agency involved in dealing with emergencies and disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which oversees disaster recovery.
It's a key source of information on disaster scams, grant availability and incident specific contacts. Its home page also features an "Active Disasters" map by state.
Depending on the nature of the incident, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) may be involved in providing additional support.
You can search for a local team by keying in your zip code at the Search CERT Programs By ZIP Code page.
Finally, of course, here at Scambusters we already have a database of issues dealing with all of the tricks outlined in this two-part disaster scams report.
See these, for example:
During Hurricane Sandy, we also published a list of useful information sources that might prove useful in other disasters.
You can search the Scambusters site for more. And we have our own guides on preparedness:
Being prepared is a key element of coping effectively with the effects of a disaster.
And knowing how to spot the con artists and their tricks is the key to avoiding disaster scams.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!