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Natural disasters and the scams that prey on them

It never fails. First comes the storm, then comes the scam.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alerted me to a surge of consumer complaints in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The FTC’s Cristina Miranda said the complaints established a pattern that’s forming like clockwork in the areas affected by these recent natural disasters:

  • Unsolicited calls from someone posing as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official, requesting the consumers’ personal information
  • Consumers’ financial and personal identities suddenly stolen after a natural disaster
  • Scammers filing for FEMA benefits in the names and identities of consumers living in the affected areas

As with all scams that employ the name of a government agency, you should know that no legitimate government official, at any level of government, will initiate an unsolicited call to you requesting your personal or financial information. They just don’t do that. If you did not initiate the call to the agency, it’s a scam — each and every time.

The FTC offered tips on how to avoid disaster scams when your area just went through one. Here’s what you should do if:

You try to register for FEMA assistance online, but you receive a verification error. You should call FEMA at 800-621-3362 to complete your registration with a FEMA representative who can tell you the reason for the verification error. If you suspect fraud, contact the Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721. You can also report fraud to the Federal Trade Commission at

You receive a call from someone asking to verify your FEMA registration, but you did not apply for FEMA assistance. You may report the name and phone number of the person calling to the Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721. If you are unsure or uncomfortable with anyone you encounter claiming to be an emergency management official, do not give out personal information, and contact local law enforcement.  All FEMA employees will have a FEMA Badge.

An inspector comes to your home without a FEMA photo ID. Do not let someone in your home who claims to be a FEMA inspector but does not have a FEMA photo ID. Always ask to see a FEMA photo ID badge. A FEMA shirt or jacket is not proof of identity. All FEMA representatives, including our contracted inspectors, will have a laminated photo ID. If unsure, call FEMA at 800-621-3362 (FEMA).

Someone comes to your home to conduct an inspection, but asks for money before starting. Federal and state workers do not ask for—or accept—money. FEMA representatives will never charge for disaster assistance, home inspections, or for help filling out applications. Stay alert for false promises to speed up the insurance, disaster assistance, or building permit process.

The agency has also produced informative videos about specific impostor scams. Watch them here.

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