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Extension Notes: Tips to avoid scams after a natural disaster

By: Whitney Morrow
Carter County Extension Agent

Following the devastating tornadoes and flash floods over the last year, Kentuckians are working tirelessly to recover and rebuild. Unfortunately, scammers often take advantage of the vulnerable period after a natural disaster. To protect yourself and your community from scams and fraud, it is important to know how to spot and report these crimes. 

Residents of Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Knott, Letcher, Perry and Pike counties are eligible to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. While this is a welcome relief, the agency warned of possible scammers impersonating FEMA employees in the region and offered tips for how to spot these imposters.  

Official FEMA inspectors will never ask for your registration number because they already have this information. They will also never collect your personal financial information.  

FEMA employees will never charge you for an inspection or application help and will never solicit or accept money as there is no fee to apply for FEMA assistance. Don’t trust anyone who offers financial help and then asks for payment or personal info. FEMA will also never make unsolicited contact unless you have called FEMA first or submitted an official FEMA application. 

FEMA shirts or jackets are not sufficient proof of employment, so if you suspect someone may be impersonating a FEMA employee, feel free to ask to see their laminated, official FEMA photo-ID. 

If official, verified FEMA inspectors and employees come to your home or if you receive an official FEMA letter, but you have not filed for assistance, someone may have used your address and information to create a fraudulent application. Tell the inspector or call the FEMA helpline at 800-621-3362, so they can stop processing the request. This may also be a sign of identity theft; if you suspect identity theft, visit identitytheft.gov. 

You may report FEMA fraud and scams by emailing FEMA Fraud Investigations and Inspections Division at StopFEMAFraud@fema.dhs.gov, faxing 202-212-4926 or writing to FEMA Fraud and Internal Investigation Division, 400 C Street SW Mail Stop 3005, Washington, DC 20472. 

Fraudulent contractors and repair people are another common scam to watch out for after a natural disaster.  

To find reputable options for contractors or repair companies, check with the Better Business Bureau by calling Louisville/Western Kentucky, 502-583-6546; Central/Eastern Kentucky, 800-866-6668 or visiting BBB.org. You can also visit https://www.hbak.com/content.asp?contentid=161 to find the Home Builders Association of Kentucky for your county. If you have your insurance company survey the damage, they will likely give you a list of reputable companies. Credible contractors and companies should have a verifiable phone number and physical address. 

Ask for proof of liability insurance and check that companies have workers’ compensation coverage. Liability insurance protects you from getting sued if someone is hurt because of the repair work or if a neighbor’s property is damaged. Workers’ compensation coverage protects workers if injured on the job.  

Before starting work, make sure you have a written and signed contract. The contract should list all work details, costs of services and a clear start and end date. Carefully read contracts and be sure not to sign anything that may give the contractor rights to your insurance claims.  

Do not pay for work upfront. Some contractors may require a deposit, but it should never be the full estimated price. 

If you question the credibility of a company or contractor, call the Consumer Protection Division at 888-432-9257 to see if information is available about the company. 

If you suspect you have encountered disaster fraud, first, contact your local police department, then, you should call the Kentucky attorney general’s office at 502-696-5485 or submit a fraud complaint online at ag.ky.gov/scams. 

Educational programs of the Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expressions, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, or physical or mental disability. 

Source: Nichole Huff, assistant extension professor for family finance and resource management



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