Beware of storm chaser scams

Hurricane Isaac

The Mississippi National Guard helps flood-stranded civilians in Hancock County, Miss. during Hurricane Isaac. Unfortunately, some scammers take advantage of those devastated by such disasters. Image: The National Guard/Flickr/CC BY

Hurricane season is upon us again, as if the pummeling the Gulf Coast just took from blowhard Isaac wasn’t enough evidence. And in the wake of hurricanes, as with most natural disasters, come the storm chaser: a particularly low form of  scammer who is eager to make a quick killing at the expense of the victims. In most cases, those are every-day consumers who can ill-afford to have their already-strained pockets picked.

The storm chaser preys on disaster

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud is an alliance of insurance companies, government agencies and consumer groups. A spokesman for the group, James Quiggle, told the Association of American Retired Persons:

“They’re called storm chasers, going town to town where disaster strikes to descend on traumatized homeowners and causing more problems than they fix. And they often prey on senior citizens.”

And, according to Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, they are on the rise.

Contractor schemes

Contractor scams usually involve a construction bidder asking for money upfront to repair storm damage. After they are paid, they are gone, like Isaac, with the wind. If they do actually perform any repairs, the workmanship and materials are generally shoddy, requiring it to be redone correctly at some point after the scammer has disappeared. And sadly, homeowners insurance will most likely not cover repairs handled by unlicensed or unauthorized contractors.

Avoiding construction scams

— Ask your insurance agent or the Better Business Bureau for a list of approved contractors in your area before giving any repair person a green light.

— Ask to see a contractor’s license.

— Be wary of contractors with no business card or who cite a P.O. box for an address.

— Deposits should never be more than 25 percent of the total estimated contract, and should not be paid until building materials are delivered to your home.

David Guillory, interim director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Department of Public Works, said:

“You really shouldn’t be paying for work that’s not done. If somebody says, ‘Pay me half and I’m going to go get some other equipment,’ or go get another crew or something, that should send a red flag up.”

Vehicle scams

Following intense flooding, as often accompanies hurricanes, scammers with unauthorized automotive “chop shops” will snatch up all the totaled luxury vehicles they can for a song at insurance auctions. Then they will rebuild these vehicles with shoddy materials and craftsmanship and resell them on the auction circuit to unsuspecting consumers.

Though these vehicles may run fine for a month or two, generally they will start breaking down regularly, turning them into a money pits that double and triple cost in no time.

Avoiding vehicle scams

Before buying any used car, whether from a lot, an individual or at an auction, conduct a pre-purchase inspection with a reputable mechanic. It is also wise to obtain a title history search report through a trusted company such as CARFAX.


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