Stopping natural disasters from turning into financial disasters

By Chuck Norris

As my wife, Gena, and I pray for Florida, our hearts, condolences and prayers go out to all the victims of Hurricane Ian. The devastation was so extensive and the loss so great, especially for the dozens of people who perished in it and their families dealing with the aftermath. We pray for you all.

One of the warnings Florida Gov. DeSantis gave on the first day the category 4 hurricane hit the Sunshine State was to beware of scammers, who soar in like vultures seeking to prey on the weak and destitute. They also covertly seek out countless millions of generous hearts across the country who rightly want to help the victims, but in hope of pocketing all their monies. Lastly, there are also unexpected “normal” financial struggles that come up.

As far as financial issues that could arise for victims, I highly advise reading through the “9 financial problems after a natural disaster – and what you can do about them,” by The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Here are examples of some “normal” problems people faced after natural disasters but didn’t expect:

1. Some people didn’t know that their accounts were going to collection.
2. Some people thought that when they contacted their lender or servicer for a loan deferral or suspension, the payments would be added to the end of the loan, and were surprised when the payments became suddenly due.
3. Some people had trouble understanding their financial company’s disaster relief policies.
4. Some people had trouble paying contractors they had hired because their insurance check was being held by their bank or mortgage servicer.
5. Some people found that they still owed money on their auto loans even after their car was declared a total loss by their insurance company.
6. Some people impacted by natural disasters reported that their accounts became overdrawn.
7. Some consumers with debts with the Small Business Administration were sent to collections.
8. After a natural disaster it can be difficult to stay on top of mortgage payments and other bills.
9. People affected by natural disasters can sometimes become targets for fraud.

The law firm of Paley Rothman advised, “Typically, [scammers] start with unsolicited contact with you by telephone, social media, e-mail, or in person. You could get a call from scammers impersonating charities to get donations or your private information. They are quick to set up fake websites with names that closely mimic legitimate charities in an effort to trick you, a concerned and well-meaning person, into sending money. They prey on the victims themselves by pretending to be from the IRS or other federal and state agencies seeking personal information under the guise of helping victims file loss claims and get tax refunds.

“Don’t help them. Don’t become a victim yourself. Be skeptical and on guard. If you are a donor, ask for information. Check out the charity. You can find reputable charities to support casualties of natural disasters by using the IRS’s tax exempt organization search or look for an organization’s charity existence and rating on places such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator.

“If you’re an elderly disaster victim, go to the National Council on Aging’s BenefitsCheckUp® disaster assistance tool to find legitimate help with relief and financial assistance.”

The National Law Review reported this past week, “Many organizations will mobilize to offer assistance to victims in the days and weeks to come. At the same time, scammers will be looking to tug on our heartstrings to try to get us to send money to fraudulent organizations pretending to help the victims of the hurricane.

“This is an old trick to prey on good-natured individuals to divert funds when we are most vulnerable [view related posts]. Help those in need, but be wary of scammers in the process.

“Here are some tips to avoid being scammed:

  • Research the organization you are interested in donating to, and make sure you are on the organization’s legitimate website when donating through a website.
  • Donate to charities you have donated to before, which you know to be legitimate and experienced in responding to disasters.
  • Be wary of any solicitations for donations of gift cards, cash, cryptocurrency or wires.
  • Be wary of responding to a random email requesting a donation and don’t click on links or attachments provided in a solicitation.
  • Don’t trust a solicitation in an email or text, even if a legitimate charity’s logo is included.”

And just for good measure, here’s some great sound advice just put out by AARP:

1. If you choose to give a donation, choose wisely. The Federal Trade Commission offers guidance on how to avoid charity scams. This advice includes being aware of criminals’ tactics, such as using names similar to legitimate charities and making “lots of vague and sentimental claims” with no specifics about how your donation will be used.

2. Be skeptical of anyone promising immediate clean-up and debris removal. Some may quote outrageous prices, demand an upfront payment, but lack the skills needed – or have no intention of following through with the work. Before you pay, ask for identification, licenses and proof of insurance. Don’t believe promises that aren’t in writing.

3. Never pay by wire transfer, gift card or cash. And never make a final payment until the work is done and you’re satisfied.

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

5. Don’t pay anyone to help you qualify for FEMA relief. Remember that FEMA does not charge application fees to apply for funds. If someone wants money to help you do so, it’s probably a scam.

6. If you suspect that you’ve been targeted by a disaster-related scam, report it. Contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF), using the 24-hour disaster fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or through the NCDF’s web complaint form.

Most of all, don’t ever forget: it’s only a scam if you fall for it.

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