SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. – As Sevier County residents work to rebuild following the devastating Nov. 28 – Dec. 9 wildfire, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are cautioning them about phony, unscrupulous building contractors and other scam artists that often take advantage of people following a disaster.
“In the wake of a disaster, it’s common to see the generous side of human nature. Unfortunately, there are also those people who may try to take advantage of victims during this stressful time,” said TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan.
“Disasters often bring out the best and worst in people,” said FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Moore. “We strongly recommend that those who are rebuilding their homes and lives take a few simple steps to make sure they’re dealing with a reputable person.”
The first and best defense is to know the most common post-disaster fraud practices:
Phony housing inspectors: If a home’s damage is visible from the street, the homeowner may be especially vulnerable to the phony housing inspector who claims to represent FEMA or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
What to do to help protect yourself?
• Ask to see the inspector’s identification badge. All federal employees and contractors carry official, laminated photo identification. A FEMA or SBA shirt or jacket is not proof of someone’s affiliation with the government.
• Don’t give bank account numbers to an inspector claiming to be affiliated with the federal government. FEMA inspectors never require banking information.
• Don’t believe anyone that says they are endorsed by FEMA. FEMA does not endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs. FEMA contracts with inspectors to verify losses.
Fraudulent building contractors: Damage visible from the street also can bring out scam contractors who visit your home offering to begin work immediately, usually for an upfront payment. Most legitimate contractors will have more work than they can handle after a disaster and will provide you a written estimate for completion.
When you hire a contractor:
• Use licensed local contractors backed by reliable references when possible. Get a written estimate from at least three contractors, including the cost of labor and materials, and read the fine print.
• Demand that contractors carry general liability insurance and workers’ compensation. If they don’t, you may be liable for accidents that occur on your property.
Bogus pleas for post-disaster donations: Understand that disaster aid solicitations may arrive by phone, email, letter or face-to-face visits. You can ensure the solicitation is legitimate if you:
• Ask for the charity’s exact name, street address, phone number, and web address, then phone the charity directly and confirm that the person asking for funds is an employee or volunteer.
• Think before you give cash — instead, pay by check made out to the charity in case you must stop funds later.
• Request a receipt with the charity’s name, street address, phone number and web address (if applicable). Legitimate nonprofit agencies routinely provide receipts for tax purposes.
Fake offers of state or federal aid:
• If someone claiming to be from FEMA or the state visits, calls or emails asking for your Social Security number, bank account number or other sensitive information, be cautious. Don’t provide any personal information unless you made the initial call.
• Do not trust any phone or in-person solicitor who promises to speed up the insurance, disaster assistance or building permit process.
• Some scam artists may promise to provide a disaster grant in return for large cash deposits or advance payments in full. Never agree to pay any amount of money for a disaster grant.
It is important to know that federal and state workers do not solicit or accept money. FEMA and SBA never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications. If ever in doubt, do not give out personal information and report people claiming to be government workers to local police.
If you suspect someone is perpetrating fraud, call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721. Complaints may also be made to local law enforcement agencies.
Disaster survivors who have any questions can call FEMA’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-621-3362.