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Disasters bring out the best in people, and sadly, also the worst in the form of looting, and scams and fraud. I experienced this first hand when Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on my hometown in 2017.
Harvey caused significant damage to nearly 200 businesses and left approximately 20% of the homes flooded, some submerged up to their rooftops. The lengthy recovery took years, and some businesses never recovered; many homes were simply abandoned. Fortunately, our home was spared from the floodwaters, but had they continued to rise for just a few more hours, our luck would have run out.
Afterwards, the affected areas became targets for low-lifes seeking to exploit every opportunity. In this article, I’ll share what I learned so that if you’re ever in this situation, you can hopefully avoid a second disaster.
The Good: Look for the Helpers
This article is about protecting yourself from post-disaster scams and fraud, oh, and looting. However, it’s essential to acknowledge the remarkable level of support demonstrated by our community. In true Mr. Roger’s fashion, if we look for the helpers, we do find them.
Churches were the first with boots on the ground, so to speak. Within hours the call went out for meals, hygiene supplies, bedding, water bottles, and lots and lots of manpower. Most every church played a pivotal role in organizing work crews. These crews tirelessly entered affected homes to assist shell-shocked homeowners in dismantling the remnants of their once secure lives, leaving them with nothing but bare concrete floors and wall studs. Each day, the resilience and unity displayed by the community embodied the spirit of “Texas Strong.”
If you are fortunate to escape a disaster unscathed but neighbors are not, here are some do’s and don’ts for providing comfort.
The Bad and the Ugly: Fraud and Scams and Looting
The aftermath of the disaster was evident as heaps of debris, what I referred to as “house guts,” accumulated along the streets. It took months for all of those piles to be hauled away. As you can imagine, mountains of drenched carpets, sheetrock, furniture, clothing, and various personal belongings became breeding grounds for flies, rodents, and mosquitoes.
Regrettably, these conditions also attracted a particular group of opportunistic individuals who preyed upon vulnerable families. Knowledge and situational awareness are key to combatting this.
Unfortunately, the worst aspects of human nature emerged in the form of shameless opportunists who sought to exploit our community in every conceivable way. Looters, in particular, seized the opportunity to rummage through temporarily abandoned homes, making off with whatever meager belongings the homeowners had managed to salvage. (Looting and scavenging are different.) It is no wonder the sentiment “Looters will be shot” resonates strongly with me.
Other homeowners, in their haste to gut their homes and initiate the drying process, resorted to piling their belongings in front yards with the intention of sorting through them later. However, they soon discovered that anything left outside became fair game. Day and night, vehicles prowled these neighborhoods, with these human vultures searching for anything of potential value.
Amidst the piles of debris, people had no choice but to discard sodden paperwork, mail, and personal files. Shockingly, members of the underbelly of society wasted no time in exploiting these discarded documents.
They created fraudulent identities complete with counterfeit driver’s licenses, checks, and credit cards. In some cases, even the work crews stumbled upon these documents and sold them to other criminals.
Instances of mail theft from mailboxes became prevalent once mail delivery resumed. This took advantage of homeowners unable to promptly retrieve their mail while being displaced.
One option to protect your mail is completing a USPS mail hold request. The postal service will hold mail for up to 30 days. Alternatively, for displacements longer than 30 days, you can complete a temporary change of address form. Mail will be forwarded to wherever you are.
TIP: Prepare a Grab-n-Go Binder so even if your paperwork is destroyed, you have copies of important documents.
Contractor Fraud and Scams
Speaking of work crews, as one would expect, our town soon attracted a multitude of construction workers and contractors. Some of them capitalized on the misfortune of flood victims in various ways. Some demanded hefty deposits only to vanish without completing the job. Others performed shoddy work that required professionals to rectify their mistakes. Anti-mold companies shamelessly peddled unnecessary products and services.
As you look for your homes and properties to be repaired, PLEASE don’t tell contractors, bidders, and handyman you’ve just received your insurance check unless you absolutely need to. And please don’t tell them how much it was. I’ve seen several areas become devastated and people will be looking to get the most money from you. Telling them you received your check and how much it was, tells them just how much to bid the job for! Whether or not the work is worth that amount. People unfortunately, are not as honest these days. Do not be afraid to ask to see a portfolio of pictures of their work, request references, and by all means… ask questions! Keep all quotes to yourself, unless using it to negotiate a lower price. This will ensure your quotes and estimates are truthful and honest. Don’t be afraid to get multiple quotes either. This will make the money hungry bids stand out. And last but not least… cheapest isn’t always the best. Some people will cut corners to cut costs.
The heartfelt please of a seasoned construction professional issued on a Facebook page
On various Facebook pages and community forums, there were reports of numerous instances of scammers preying on the desperation of others. It was disheartening to witness such exploitation during a time when unity and support are most crucial.
Individuals Pretending to be Disaster Victims
Since our home hadn’t flooded, I worked alongside churches and community groups to help any way I could. There were a number of cases where individuals whose homes had remained unscathed by the floodwaters shamelessly joined in with requests for various items such as furniture, appliances, clothing, and more.
One woman even shared a range of sob stories across different Facebook pages until the community began to catch on to her deceit. As a result, many of us started asking for additional information from those seeking assistance, such as requesting an address to verify the genuine need, confirming if their home had indeed been flooded, and ensuring they were not simply seeking unwarranted handouts, thereby leaving less for the true victims of the flood. I didn’t feel good about being skeptical, but no one likes being taken advantage of, especially in a scenario like this one.
Con Artists Impersonating Agency Officials
Unfortunately, fraudulent activities extended beyond social media platforms.
There were individuals who utilized the telephone and computers as tools to defraud unsuspecting victims. Whether through impersonating government officials, insurance agents, or disaster relief organizations, they invented new ways to deceive people and extract personal information or money from them. Two examples that were reported to me:
- “I just received a call from someone saying they were with FEMA and that I was being offered $9k. They wanted my banking info. They could not tell my name or address. They hung up when I asked if they knew my name. It was from a 202 (DC) number. Don’t give banking info over the phone. FEMA should already have it if you applied for relief.” (Read more about how FEMA will help you here.
- “There are individuals out there that are using addresses of homes that have been vacant due to flooding for purposes of obtaining governmental services (i.e. Unemployment Benefits and/or Government Assistance). How can you tell? When you receive mail addressed to strangers with your address and a lot # after the street address. Watch out for this as it has happened to me from about 4 strangers. I contacted the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and reported them. I then returned the mail to the Post Office marked RETURN TO SENDER – DOES NOT LIVE HERE. This could stem from strangers driving the neighborhood to Contractors working in the neighborhood.”
Other Ways Scams and Fraud Occur
On one Facebook page, it took just a few hours for these additional experiences to be reported:
- (People are) selling flooded cars or other items without disclosing the damage.
- My friend got her purse stolen at Lowe’s. The police told her a lot of people have come into town to steal. Because everyone is so distracted, we become easy targets.
- Someone in the streets where I’m volunteering asked me for donations. I talked with other volunteers, asking about help to find donations for him and they said he was selling the donations.
- There are people selling items they collect from donation points. I see it all over Facebook. Huge stockpiles of diapers, cleaning supplies, clothes, purses, etc.
- I have had friends have AC companies quote for new AC unit ($10k a pop) and then sent my repair man out to say the units are fine and may need a new coil at $1400 max. Also had a general inspector confirm units were fine.
- (My husband’s) warehouse was broken into during the hurricane. They took almost everything valuable from his office including his signed print of The Alamo.
- People trying to return our donated items to the store for cash– we were told to cross through the bar code with a thick black marker so this couldn’t happen.
- Price gouging! I got quotes for drywall replacement from $20K to $41K!
- A picture of my collapsed townhome was posted on FB as if it was someone else’s home. They used it so they could garner sympathy and collect donations for a boy who wasn’t living in any of the Townhomes and his home wasn’t flooded. The post was eventually taken down but not until they bragged about getting all kinds of money….for example $5k from someone and $250 from State Farm.
- The Red Cross hasn’t even been here yet and all I hear is them asking for donations.
Reporting Post-Disaster Fraud and Scams
You’ll also want to notify your local law-enforcement agencies.
These families and businesses affected by the flood now face a lifetime divided into “before the flood” and “after the flood.” The last thing they deserved was to be victimized once again, this time by their fellow human beings.
The experiences of my community aren’t unique. Wherever there are people hurt by property and personal losses there will be vultures, eager to take advantage. Take note of some of the strategies reported here, share with anyone you know who might be in a similar situation, and be watchful yourself.
We can outwit scammers when we know what to watch for.
I’m the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I’ve been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.