As the peak of hurricane season quickly closes in on Southwest Florida, the Lee County Sheriff's Office reminds residents what to look for and how to stay away from some of the most common scams and frauds that may occur after a natural disaster. When preparing your hurricane survival kit this year, don't forget to include these very important "post-hurricane" safety and security tips to avoid being taken advantage of by con-artists who love to prey on disaster victims:
- Identity thieves: Inclement weather may force you to abandon your home due to flooding and wind, leaving your personal items vulnerable to being scattered around town. Now is the time to shred sensitive information and place items such as your social security card, birth certificate and passport in a secured, water-proof container. If you are forced to relocate from your home, be sure to contact your local post office as soon as possible to either forward your mail or place it on hold as identity thieves have been known to collect information from abandoned houses.
- Dishonest contractors: If you have property damage you will most likely want to have it repaired as quickly as possible so you can regain a sense of normalcy. This mindset can leave you vulnerable to fly-by-night contractors looking to make a quick buck. Beware of high price temporary repairs, a request for a large cash deposit, or pushy salesmen. If at all possible it is always best to get at least three written estimates by contractors who have roots in the local community.
- Fraudulent representation of FEMA: After a disaster, you may encounter someone who claims to be a FEMA representative. Beware of phone calls and individuals who go door-to-door asking for your social security and/or bank account numbers, FEMA registration number or other sensitive material. FEMA reps typically will not take an active role in seeking out individuals, but will make themselves accessible to victims by travelling through damaged areas. If in doubt, contact the sheriff's office.
- Charitable phishing or spoofing alerts: Beware of Web sites and e-mails soliciting donations for disaster victims. To ensure contributions to U.S. based non-profit organizations are received and used for intended purposes, go directly to the Web site of recognized charities and aid organizations, as opposed to following links provided in e-mails. All Internet scam complaints can be forwarded to: www.ic3.gov.
If you have a question about this topic, or if you would like to report a fraud, contact the LCSO Fraud line at (239) 477-1242.