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Disaster relief fraud, don’t fall victim

disaster relief fraud, hurricane, scam, donationsMy heart, as many others, goes out to the people of Houston and the surrounding cities and towns affected by Hurricane Harvey. I experienced the storm surge created by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. My home was within inches of flooding and my next door neighbor completely lost his home simply because the typography of his land was slightly lower than mine. So I understand, well I do somewhat understand. Hurricane Harvey is unprecedented so only those experiencing its devastation truly understand.

We all want to know how we can help. We are more than willing to send food, supplies or cash to Houston. But let’s not become victims ourselves. Natural disasters bring out the best in people but also the worst. Disaster relief fraud is nothing new. Hurricane Katrina saw no less than 15 fake websites seemingly related to the Red Cross seeking donations. The “Hurricane Sandy Relief Effort” raised $600,000 for victims of that storm. In actuality, it was two people hoping to pay off their own credit cards.

The fraudsters take advantage of the vulnerable in many ways. Yes, we are vulnerable as sympathetic outsiders who just want to help. Our contributions are necessary but they need to reach those who need it most. Those looking to contribute should be sure they are going through legitimate charitable organizations. I have not heard of any specific scams related to Harvey but you can be sure they are out there. Don’t give your credit card information over the phone, check the websites you go to and don’t click links in emails asking for donations. Go directly to a trusted organization’s website by typing in the address yourself.

The fraudsters will also prey on the most vulnerable – the victims of the floods. Price gouging, construction fraud and vendor fraud are typical following natural disasters. Texas may be especially vulnerable to construction fraud as the state does not require home builders or handymen/carpenters to have a contractor’s license. Let’s hope that the majority of the victims do not turn in to double victims.

Insurance fraud can also occur after natural disasters. Even those who may be honest in other aspects may look to “pad” their insurance claim. Or others may deliberately fabricate a claim affecting premiums of us all.

My continuing thoughts and prayers are with Houston, not just for the flood, but the aftermath as well.

Melissa E. Loughlin-Sines, CPA, CFE, CVA, CFF, ABV