Following devastating floods in the eastern half of the state, those in the office of Kentucky’s attorney general expect to see a repeat of the kind of scams that preyed on tornado victims just months earlier.
Already, Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office is receiving complaints about suspected scams.
One report that came in Thursday involved a call from someone claiming to be a business collecting money for flood victims. In another case, an individual on Facebook offered to be the go-between for donors and a charity working to support victims.
“We know from experience that scammers follow natural disasters and hit people when they’re most vulnerable,” said LaDonna Koebel, who heads the office’s division of Senior Protection and Mediation as its executive director.
Additionally, the governor and state transportation cabinet have already warned against a circulating text scam collecting personal information under the guise of gathering information for new state-issued IDs.
Kentucky residents can report a potential scam by visiting ag.ky.gov/scams or by calling 502-696-5485 or the consumer protection hotline at 1-888-432-9257.
Koebel told the Herald-Leader that reporting scams helps in several ways, including with investigation and referrals to law enforcement. If law enforcement can establish a pattern of fraudulent activity, they can help others avoid becoming victims.
Most common scams following a natural disaster
Looking at the tornadoes that swept through Western Kentucky late last year as an example, Koebel said there’s often a lag between the disaster itself and when scammers start preying on victims.
Scam reports started to escalate about two weeks after the disaster.
“There’s a lag,” Koebel said, adding fraud typically starts when federal relief officials start putting personnel on the ground to help people rebuild.
Koebel said she expects to see people who didn’t have damage begin to receive letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the mail acknowledging receipt of their claim.
“That’s very likely a situation where they didn’t realize they had an identity theft,” Koebel said. “That’s how they realize something has happened and that they’re actually suffering identity theft.”
On the other hand, disaster victims will show up at a FEMA relief center to apply for benefits – only to be told there’s already been an application filed under their Social Security number. In those cases, Koebel encouraged applicants to inform FEMA of the fraudulent claim so it can stop being processed immediately.
The most prevalent scams in the wake of the Western Kentucky tornadoes were fake FEMA claims, identity theft, unsolicited calls and charitable donations, door-to-door salespeople and contractors who come from out of state offering to help rebuild.
Sometimes people will get a call or knock on the door from someone claiming to be from FEMA.
Never give out the 10-digit verification code that’s attached to your claim, the one that allows you to follow up about its status, Koebel said.
“That should be as protected as your Social Security number,” Koebel said.
It’s very easy to fall prey to these scams because victims are often overwhelmed.
“There’s a lot of clean up and a lot of recovery that’s going to be needed,” she said.
If someone feels like they may have been scammed, Koebel encourages them not to be ashamed and report it to the attorney general’s office as soon as possible.
How to avoid becoming a victim of a natural disaster scammer
Thursday, Cameron issued a consumer alert to warn Kentuckians about possible natural disaster and charity scams following the extreme flooding in Eastern Kentucky.
The following tips are important to keep in mind:
Be wary of out-of-town contractors. Kentucky home or property owners affected by flood damage should be aware of these individuals going door-to-door – especially if they use high-pressure sales tactics and demand you pay upfront for their services.
Never believe any contractor who claims to be “FEMA certified.” That’s a red flag. The agency does not certify or endorse private-sector contractors.
Do your research. Lookup contractors on BBB.org, get a reference from friends or family or check with your local government agency responsible for registering or licensing contractors. Be sure to gather more than one estimate.
Contact your insurance company instead. If you have insurance, ask your insurer for a list of reputable contractors.
Do not sign insurance checks over to a contractor. Make sure you get an invoice from the contractor and pay them directly – preferably with a credit card so the charges can be disputed later if needed. Read your contracts carefully. Don’t ever sign a document that gives someone else rights to your insurance claims.
Those who feel moved to help flood victims should also keep the following in mind:
A legitimate charity will never ask for your personal banking information. Steer clear. Use websites like charitynavigator.org to vet charities.
Give responsibly to known, reputable sources or recognized disaster relief organizations. The state has established the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, which can be accessed by visiting TeamEKYFloodReliefFund.ky.gov. Communities have also established funds, and you can check with local officials about the best way to donate.
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