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Irma victims beware: Scams are everywhere after a natural disaster

High winds from the effects of Hurricane Irma take down this large tree branch at the intersection of 28th Street and 13th Ave. North in St. Petersburg on Sunday. (BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Times)

High winds from the effects of Hurricane Irma take down this large tree branch at the intersection of 28th Street and 13th Ave. North in St. Petersburg on Sunday. (BOYZELL HOSEY | Times)

After every natural disaster comes a flood of fraud.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, insurance agencies and consumer groups warn Floridians of possible scammers looking to take advantage of vulnerable home and car owners.

A fraud task force set up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 recorded more than 26,000 fraud complaints and reported 17,000 of those to local law enforcement, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. After Hurricane Harvey last month, the Office of the Texas Attorney General received more than 3,000 fraud-related complaints.

Here are some tips for Tampa Bay area residents to avoid becoming a victim after the storm.

Unsolicited requests

The NICB says that any offer that comes unsolicited is probably too good to be true.

Some begin with a visit from a contractor to help rebuild. Others come in the mail or in the form of a robocall. The NICB recommends that "if you didn't request it, reject it."

Before hiring any contractor, call your insurance company. Any insurance company will honor its policy, so there shouldn't be a need to rush into an agreement with a contractor who approaches you about repair work. Always get more than one quote, too. Verify the contractors you're working with are licensed in the state. Ignore robocalls that claim your insurance premiums are past due. Don't pay for services up front and never sign an "assignment of benefits" form. Always call your insurance company first.

Always verify

Before Hurricane Irma even hit Florida, scammers were out in force in St. Lucie County, local authorities reported. Scammers posing as Federal Emergency Management Agency officials told homeowners they were under contract to remove debris from their private properties.

Trial lawyers also will be out in full force looking to profit from the disaster. So will auto windshield replacement technicians. If it sounds fishy, it probably is, the NICB says. Report suspicious activity to local law enforcement. Don't give out any personal or insurance information. Buy supplies from brand names you already know and have a track record with.

Online retailer Amazon, which allows third-party vendors to sell goods in its online marketplace, suspended a dozen vendors for racking up questionable fees on high-demand flood essentials before the storm.

Donations

Don't believe everything you see on social media. Fake GoFundMe pages and pleas for donations to false charitable groups claiming to assist those in need ran rampant online after Hurricane Harvey. A fake crowdfunding page, claiming to be by Miami-born singer Jason Derulo, aimed to raise $1 million for Irma victims before the storm even hit Florida. GoFundMe shut down the page.

Donate to organizations you know and trust. Local groups based in Tampa Bay are often safer than national groups you might have never heard of.

Report it

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office operates a price gouging hotline. Consumers can report questionable services and other complaints by calling toll-free 1-866-966-7226. Complaints about specific businesses and recovery services can also be reported to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at freshfromflorida.com.

Irma victims beware: Scams are everywhere after a natural disaster 09/10/17 [Last modified: Monday, September 11, 2017 7:43pm]
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