Avoiding Scams When Disaster Strikes

Feb 18, 2013

MoneyLife100When Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast, it left billions of dollars of devastation in its wake. In the aftermath, as is the case with most disasters, many people came forward to help the victims. Unfortunately, heart-wrenching devastation also brings out con artists who seek to exploit the situation through illegal scams. To help you avoid being conned, the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) recommends taking these steps. 

Protect Your Personal Information

When you donate, know that a legitimate charity should not need confidential data such as your Social Security number, bank account numbers, or any of your PINs or passwords. If you are asked for any of these details, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a con artist who may use your personal information to steal your identity and make illegal purchases. If you are the victim of a disaster, don’t give your personal information to someone who contacts you and claims to be working for a federal agency, such as FEMA or the IRS. Call the agency to verify that any request is legitimate, and get the contact information from the phone book or the appropriate agency’s website – not from a business card from the contacting party. 

Don’t Pay a Fee for Assistance

After a disaster, people come out of the woodwork insisting that they can provide a vital service for a fee. Organizations such as FEMA or the Red Cross will help you complete any required forms, so there should never be a need to pay anyone who claims they can help you fill out or expedite disaster assistance forms. Similarly, do not pay someone for help in applying for federal grants or loans for which you qualify. The agencies involved will be able to provide the help or information you need for free. If your property has been damaged and someone arrives at your door claiming they need to inspect the building, ask for identification and call the agency for which the person claims to represent. 

Don’t Bow to Price Gouging

Some unscrupulous companies hike prices after an emergency when people have an urgent need for their products or services. If you are quoted a price that doesn’t seem fair, contact your local police or state attorney general. It’s important to keep price gougers out of the market so everyone gets a fair price. 

Donate to Recognized Charities

From a local volunteer ambulance service to the American Red Cross, there are many organizations you can rely on to put donations to their intended use. But during emergencies, scammers often create bogus charities designed to do little more than line their own pockets. For that reason, it’s a good idea to restrict your giving to groups you are familiar with. In particular, don’t be conned by fake charities that have names that are similar to those of better-known groups. If you’re approached to give, ask to see some literature or documentation beforehand so you know who you’re dealing with. Don’t hesitate to research the group online or at your local library.. You can visit the IRS website and use its Exempt Organizations Select Check to find legitimate, qualified charities where you can make tax-deductible donations. You can also find the names of recognized charities on the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) website. It’s also wise to pay by check or with a credit card so you have evidence of your donation if you need it. Ask exactly how much of your money will be used for charitable works and how it will be spent. The more information you have, the better you’ll be able to choose the right recipient. 

Turn to Your Local CPA

Whether you have been the victim of a disaster or would like to protect yourself financially against a potential disaster, your local CPA can help. Turn to him or her for advice on any of your financial questions or concerns. 

For more information or to find a CPA in your area, ask family and friends for recommendations or use PICPA's CPA Locator

The Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) is a premiere statewide association of more than 22,000 members working in public accounting, industry, government, and education. Founded in 1897, the PICPA is the second-oldest state CPA organization in the United States.

Money & Life Tips are a joint effort of the AICPA and the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA), as part of the profession’s nationwide 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy program.