Avoiding Home Repair and Charity Scams After Natural Disasters

Scammers and fraudsters are always active after a disaster hits and they don't care how they steal your money

Don't Get Taken In: Avoiding Home Repair and Charity Scams After Disasters
Image: NCCC
September 10, 2018

Hurricane Florence has its sights set on the east coast and North Carolina may find itself suffering significant damage. As if preparing for the storm isn't enough, you have to be on your guard for scammers who want to take advantage of the situation and take your money.

Be Wary of Contractors Who Contact You

Phony contractors are always at work, even when no natural disaster has hit. But they're especially active after any kind of weather event that unleashes widespread damage. If a contractor calls you or shows up at your door and you did not request any services, be especially wary.

You'll often find these scammers approach you after a storm, claiming to be "doing work in your neighborhood," and pointing out your obvious damage, as well as hidden damage even though no inspection has been done. They might request large deposits or the cost of repairs up front. They may even start work as a show of good faith and then take off with your money. They may even take payment from your insurance company without completing work.

Never pay by check or cash

If you are working with a home repair contractor, you might have to pay a reasonable amount of money upfront. In any case, you shouldn't pay by cash or check, which you will have trouble recouping if your contractor takes off. Instead, pay by credit card and only pay once the job has been completed and once you are satisfied with the work.

Always get multiple estimates

If you wreck your car, you're probably not going to pay the first repair shops who quotes you a price. The same should apply to home repairs. While it may be tempting to jump on the first bid for the job in order to start work sooner, you can potentially save thousands of dollars by getting multiple estimates from multiple contractors. You may even find that the first contractor wants to do work that isn't necessary.

Have a written contract with a guarantee

If you don't have a written contract, good luck trying to prove your case if you have to take your contractor to court. If the contractor wants to work on a handshake, look elsewhere. When you get a contract, actually read it before signing it. You might be agreeing to absurd terms. Reputable contracts will guarantee their work for a set period of time.

Your Right to Cancel

Transactions that take place at a location that is not the seller's normal place of business, including your home, are eligible under state law to be cancelled up to three days after you sign the contract. The seller should include instructions on how to cancel in the written contract. You must notify them in writing if you change your mind within that three day period. It's a great idea to have proof of the cancellation.

Avoiding charity scams

If you want to help storm victims, make sure your donations will do the most good by avoiding charity scams:

  • When being solicited for a donation, ask for information about the charity, such as if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who the caller is working for, and the percentages of the donation that will go to the charity and to the fundraiser. Contact the charity directly and find out if it knows about the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name, and they should request written information about the charity, including its full name, address, and phone number. It's best to make a donation directly instead of through a solicitation.
  • Don't respond to unsolicited emails and text messages asking you to give, and be wary of social networking pleas for donations. Fraudulent messages may look legitimate and use the name of real charities.
  • Watch out for pushy telemarketers, and say no to high-pressure appeals. If a caller refuses to answer your questions about the charity, offers to pick up a donation in person, or calls you and asks for a credit card, bank account or Social Security number, donate elsewhere.
  • Verify your records if you do not remember pledging to make a donation. If you have no record of the pledge and cannot remember making it, resist pressure from the charity to donate.
  • Charities that seem to have arisen overnight should also be avoided. This is particularly common just after a disaster occurs. Newly-formed charities often do not yet have the staff and systems in place to get donations to the locations or people in need of them.
  • Fraudulent charities will try to ride on the coattails of more established, legitimate organizations by choosing very similar names. Check with the established charity to verify that it is the correct one before donating.
  • It's best to use credit cards when making a donation. This method is preferable for tax and security reasons because cash can be stolen or lost. When making an online donation or payment, look for indicators that the charity's site is secure, such as a URL beginning with "https" (the "s" stands for "secure") or an icon that looks like a lock on the status bar of the browser.
  • Before you make a donation, do your homework first. There are a number of ways to verify charity information. Consumers should contact the office in charge of regulating charitable organizations and solicitations for their state to verify an organization's claims regarding how much of their donation goes to the charity and how much is directed toward other expenses. They can also check GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance to verify information. To check up on a charity in North Carolina, call the Secretary of State's office toll free at (888) 830 4989.
  • To report a charity scam, call the North Carolina Attorney General's Office.