Elder Protective Services’ Tips on Spotting and Avoiding Disaster Scams and Charity Fraud


With the late hurricane season this year, many were shocked at the devastation left in the wake of Typhoon Merbok and Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. As people begin to rebuild, senior citizens are opening their hearts and wallets to help the victims of these natural disasters. Monetary donations for disaster relief typically support providing food, water, shelter, and medical care to those impacted.

Kenneth Rivera reflects on the sense of honor he felt after donating to a charity on a crowdfunding site. “I knew it was important to help. I can’t help physically, but I thought donating could bring aid and peace to people impacted by the hurricanes.” That pride soon turned to embarrassment once Mr. Rivera noticed the fundraiser had been shut down. “I guess I won’t ever know if my donation actually helped others.”

In our article on Charity Scams (link back to Article #2), we briefly discuss Disaster and Tragedy Scams, namely fraudulent fundraisers advertised on social media sites. The Federal Trade Commission has also alerted the nation of scammers attempting to “use a natural disaster like Hurricane Ian to steal your money, your personal information, or both.” But the FBI and FEMA warn kind-hearted Americans and those impacted by recent disasters of other likely “after-the-storm scams,” like the dirty clean-up scam.

Following a natural disaster or tragedy, criminals will try to capitalize on the misfortune of others. Con artists might promise to help with repairs, but disappear after a payment is received. Scammers may try to obtain personal and financial information from benevolent and unsuspecting senior citizens. As our nation bands together following these tragedies, Elder Protective Services advises elders, their loved ones, and caretakers to protect themselves against disaster and charity scams. Below we review some of the most recent disaster scams, their warning signs and red flags, and how to protect yourself and others against them.

Debris Deceit

The Scam: An organization or helpful individual promises immediate clean-up or debris removal after a weather-related disaster. The organization or individual may quote an expensive price or demand a deposit or partial payment before the work can begin. Once a payment has been received, the scammers disappear and the victim is left with a bigger mess.

After many big disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will coordinate the clean-up with state and local officials. Always research a company or individual before paying for a service. After a natural disaster, those impacted should check with their local jurisdiction about clean-up programs before hiring or paying someone.

Ransacking Roofers

The Scam: After a weather-related disaster or maybe even after a bad storm, a company or individual may approach a homeowner about their “loose shingles.” The con artists may have appropriate supplies and resources, so the unsuspecting victim may allow them to estimate the damages or fix the shingles. After some hammering, the company or individual demands an outrageous payment.

Other variations of this scam could include:

  • A company claims they installed your roof years prior and need to perform maintenance
  • A company offers to clean your gutters and finds an “issue” with the gutters or roof

These scammers use scare and pressure tactics to convince victims to make hefty in-the-moment payments. Remember that it is okay for you to take your time to make a decision. To avoid a scam, you could ask the company to send you more information. A respectable company will appreciate the potential business. A scammer will become frustrated and angry.

Government Impersonators

The Scam: The FTC has reported an immense increase in government impostor scams. Elder Protective Services discusses government impersonators in depth in our article 21st Century Senior Scams (link back to Article). In this situation, a scammer will pose as a government official and offer to help those impacted by a tragic event, but for a fee. These scammers typically wear uniforms or provide believable ID.

After a natural disaster, a impostor might:

  • Pose as a government official and request a “processing fee” to provide disaster relief.
  • Impersonate a safety inspector and require payment for “tests.”
  • Mimic a government official and state they have a check for a potential victim to deposit. Once deposited, the scammer will reveal that the person has been overpaid and will demand a repayment.
  • Press a victim to pay with cash, by wire transfer, or use a prepaid debit card.

The FTC encourages elders to “Walk away from anyone who demands personal information or money up-front. That’s always a scam.”

Insurance Impostors

The Scam: The scammer calls an innocent and overwhelmed elder pretending to be a representative from their insurance policy. These criminals are out to collect victims’ personal and financial information. They may ask for policy numbers, account numbers, or even Social Security numbers to verify the policy-holder and begin the insurance.

If you receive a phone call after a natural disaster about an insurance claim or policy, don’t give out any personal information or agree to a payment until you verify that the call is legitimate. Elder Protective Services advises seniors to always hang up and call the company directly using the number on your most recent account statement.

Charity Cheats

The Scam: A criminal asks for monetary donations in person (door-to-door), through mail, over the phone, in an email, or through an online platform. The scammer will create a believable pretense, such as a familiar organization name, and use pressure tactics to convince the potential victim to “donate” on the spot.

For in-the-moment donation requests, remember to take your time before reaching a decision. You can protect yourself by asking the organization to send you materials before donating. Any respectable and legitimate charity will appreciate your interest. It is okay to take your time and research a group before donating to their cause.

Spot the Scam: Is it Safe or is it a Sham?

Though scammers are always evolving their cons, most disaster scams have similar warning signs and red flags. If you experience a suspicious situation that involves any of the following, you might be in the process of being scammed.

  • Pressure: Scammers often create a fake sense of urgency to persuade potential victims to make an immediate decision or payment. For example, a con artist might threaten that if you do not respond immediately, your disaster relief funds will be voided. Do not give in to these pressures!
  • Payments by Cash, Wire Transfer, or Gift Card: Scammers prefer these payment methods because the money is difficult to trace and return.
  • Unexpected Contact: Whether it is a knock on your door, a flier in the mail, or a text message, if you were not expecting contact from a company or government agency, do not engage.
  • Immediate Payment Demands: A scammer will coerce victims into making a payment through the use of scare tactics. A legitimate government organization will not charge a “processing fee” to provide disaster aid.
  • Requests for Sensitive or Financial Information: Scammers often pose as bank staff, health care providers, or government officials asking for personal or financial information. NEVER provide your personal information (bank account number, Social Security number, etc.) to strangers.
  • Sounds Too Good to Be True: A scammer will manipulate a scenario their scheme appears to be the answer to your prayers. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Respectable companies and legitimate government officials will not mind your caution.

Protect Yourself

Protect yourself and loved ones by putting the following preventative measures in place:

  • Research Before you Pay: Before making a deposit to a clean-up crew, check your local jurisdiction to see if they have already begun the clean-up coordination. AARP advises seniors to “Before you pay, ask for identification, licenses and proof of insurance. Don’t believe promises that aren’t in writing.”
  • Do Not Give Into Demands: Scammers pressure unsuspecting elders with scare tactics and a fake sense of urgency. Protect yourself by asking the organization to send you materials before investing in a service or donating.
  • Remember: FEMA does not charge application fees to apply for funds. Demands for money in order to receive aid is a red flag for a scam.
  • Guard Your Financial Information: Only scammers will demand money, bank account number or Social Security number. NEVER provide your personal information to someone you do not know.
  • Never Make a Payment by Wire Transfer, Gift Card, or Cryptocurrency: Scammers prefer these methods because they are harder to track. In general, using credit cards or checks are safer.
  • Guard Your Personal Information: Only scammers will demand money, your bank account number or your Social Security number. NEVER provide your personal information to someone you do not know.

Key Takeaways:

Scammers target seniors year round, but often expand their schemes after natural disasters and tragedies in order to exploit elder generosity. Elder Protective Services believes the best way to protect yourself or your loved ones from disaster scams is to be aware of the red flags and put protective measures in place. To avoid being scammed after a disaster, remember to:

  • Research a company or your local jurisdiction before paying for a clean-up service.
  • Take Your Time when deciding on what repairs need to be done.
  • Question anyone claiming to be a government official.
  • Remember a government agency will never ask you for money in order to receive disaster relief.
  • DO NOT engage in a phone call with someone claiming to be from your insurance company. Instead hang up and call your company directly.
  • Inquire about an organization before donating.
  • NEVER wire money, send gift cards or cryptocurrency to unverified sources
  • NEVER share your personal or financial information

Steps to Report Disaster Scams or Charity Fraud

  • If you have dealt with an impostor claiming to be with FEMA, immediately report to the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.
  • File a complaint with the National Center for Disaster Fraud.
  • Contact your local authorities or state consumer protection offices.
  • Report Disaster Scams or Charity Fraud to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is responsible for protecting consumers and their personal information. The FTC cannot resolve individual complaints, but they provide individualized next steps.
  • Contact your credit card company. Report the unauthorized charges or if you think a scammer stole your credit card number. Each credit card company will provide additional next steps.
  • If you believe you gave your personal information to a scammer, go to IdentityTheft.gov for steps you can take to protect your identity.

Daniel Klibanoff, an advocate for seniors, is currently serving as the President and CEO of Multimedia Lists, Inc. Daniel is also the founder and director of Elder Protective Services, an enterprise aimed to serve and protect elders. Learn more at https://elderprotectiveservices.org/

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