COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Securitys Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cautions Pettis County survivors of the recent tornado to be on the lookout for scam artists pretending to be employed by FEMA or another government agency, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
Historically, disasters bring out the very best in people and there are countless stories of neighbors helping neighbors. Unfortunately, history also shows that disasters can bring out the worst in some people. Tornado survivors should be vigilant in protecting their personal assets, particularly when living in such a stressful environment.
"Consumers should keep in mind that a FEMA or SBA shirt or jacket is not absolute proof of someone's affiliation with these agencies," said FEMA's Federal Coordinating Officer Libby Turner. "The best way to verify authorized FEMA or SBA personnel is by checking their laminated photo identification card, which they are required to wear at all times."
One common scheme involves con artists going door-to-door in neighborhoods of damaged homes, or phoning victims, and soliciting personal information such as social security and bank account numbers. Consumers should know that FEMA inspectors never require this information. A Social Security or bank account number is requested during the first phone call to the FEMA registration line. On any follow-up calls, a FEMA representative may ask for the last four digits of your Social Security number but never the whole number.
There have been reports, during earlier disasters, of scammers telling homeowners they need to pay $1,500 to be put on a list to get their home repaired. Other reports have surfaced of persons pretending to be from the SBA and offering to fill out disaster loan applications for a $50 fee. Survivors should remember that under no circumstances are FEMA or SBA representatives allowed to accept money. FEMA staff registers all applicants without charge and experts are located at Disaster Recovery Centers to assist storm survivors with their application for disaster aid. Also, there is never a charge to be placed on a "FEMA List" or to have SBA representatives assist applicants with their disaster loan application.
Other points to keep in mind to avoid becoming a scam victim:
- Check on a contractor's licensing status with local or State licensing agencies. Check with the local Better Business Bureau, homebuilders association or trade council to see if the contracting firm has any unanswered complaints against it;
- Be suspicious of anyone who offers to increase the amount of your disaster damage assessment;
- Ask for proof of insurance. If a contractor is uninsured, you may be liable for accidents on your property. Make sure the contractor has both disability and worker's compensation insurance;
- Ask for a written estimate and check to make sure it includes all work you expect to have done, as well as taxes and other fees. Keep in mind that some contractors charge for an estimate;
- Once you decide to use a particular contractor, ask for a written contract that includes all tasks to be performed as well as associated costs, a timeline and payment schedule, and who is responsible for necessary permits and licenses. Never sign a blank contract;
- Do not give anyone an advance cash payment. Pay by check in order to keep a record and avoid double charges;
- Legitimate contractors normally do not require more than one-third of the total charges as a down payment;
- Ask for a written guarantee that states what is covered, who is responsible and how long the guarantee is valid; and
- If you feel uncomfortable about a contract and have already signed it, cancel it quickly. You may cancel some contracts within three business days after signing. Be sure to follow the contract cancellati...