A disaster can bring out the best in people or the worst in people, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service expert. And if it’s the latter, people need to be aware of how some people may try to take advantage.

“The most common complaints following a disaster relate to price gouging and home repair contractors, but identity theft is also a concern,” said Dr. Joyce Cavanagh, AgriLife Extension family economics specialist in College Station.

Cavanagh said following past disasters, such as Hurricane Rita, the Texas Office of the Attorney General received numerous complaints of businesses charging excessive prices for essential goods and services such as rental cars, hotels and motels, building materials, and groceries.

“Anyone who feels he or she is a victim of price gouging following a disaster should report the incident to the consumer hotline at the Texas Office of the Attorney General,” she said. The number for the hotline is 800-252-8011, and their website is at http://www.oag.state.tx.us.

After a major disaster, contractors and others often go door-to-door soliciting home repair work, Cavanagh said. “While many of them are legitimate, others are not and the dishonest ones may take your money without completing the job or use inferior materials and perform shoddy work,” she said.

Cavanagh offered the following suggestions before hiring a contractor:

  • Get more than one estimate and don’t be forced to sign a contract right away. Ask the salesperson to leave a copy of the contract for you to review.
  • Get everything in writing, including cost, work to be done, time schedules, guarantees, payment schedule and other concerns.
  • Keep copies of everything you sign.

She added that any contract signed for work on a homestead must contain the following warning next to the space for your signature: “Important Notice: You and your contractor are responsible for meeting the terms and conditions of this contract. If you sign this contract and you fail to meet the terms and conditions of this contract, you may lose your legal ownership rights in your home. Know your rights and duties under the law.”

“When you sign a contract for home improvements on your homestead, a contractor can legally fix a lien on the homestead,” she said. “If you sign a contract containing the language quoted above, and you fail to make the payments, the contracting company can take away your home. So it’s imperative that you understand your obligations under the contract, and that you are confident you can meet those obligations. If you have doubts, consult an attorney before you sign.”

Cavanagh said people should also ask for a driver’s license and/or contractor’s license and write down those numbers, as well as the person’s address and a vehicle license plate number.

“Then contact the Better Business Bureau in the person’s home community or check online at http://www.bbb.org to determine whether there are any complaints,” she said. “Call your local Better Business Bureau office if you need assistance.”

She added that it is also important to ask for references and check them out, and never to sign a contract with blanks where unacceptable terms might be added later.

“Never pay a contractor in full or sign a completion certificate until the work is finished and acceptable. And beware of salespeople who say they need to be paid in full before the work is complete.”

Identity theft

Cavanagh said after a disaster people often will have to share personal information in order to get relief benefits from government agencies or other organizations, or to obtain replacement identification documents.

“Be cautious,” she said, “because identity thieves may pose as government officials or representatives of government agencies. Ask for identification, and when possible, try to initiate the contact yourself using information on official websites or at official information centers.”

People working with contractors and others to repair their homes may be asked for personal information so a credit check can be performed, she said.

“Be sure the business is legitimate before you give out your Social Security number or other personal information,” she said. “If in doubt, don’t give it out.”

Cavanagh also suggested examining bank statements, credit card statements and other statements closely for any unauthorized purchases or withdrawals.

“About 60 days after the disaster, you should request copies of your credit report from all three major credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax,” she said. “Sometimes after a disaster, credit bureaus do not charge victims for their credit reports, so be sure to ask. And if you believe someone has committed identity theft against you or may do so in the future, you may want to add an Initial Security Alert to your personal credit report.”

She said this initial alert will remain for 90 days and will notify anyone who reviews your report to take extra steps to verify the identity before granting credit.

“You need to request the security alert with only one credit bureau,” she said. “That bureau should automatically notify the other two to place an alert on your file. But be aware that adding an alert to your credit report may prevent you from opening an account unless the creditor is able to get in touch with you and positively confirm your identity and that you are applying for credit.”

Nancy Granovsky, AgriLife Extension family economics specialist, added that another scam people should be aware of relates to those who might try to fraudulently obtain money for disaster relief efforts.

“Some people will prey on the compassion and giving nature of others for their own benefit,” Granovsky said. “If you are approached by someone representing an organization you have never heard of soliciting donations for disaster relief, check them out before you write a check or drop any money into a bucket.”

She said it is usually safest to donate to either local agencies with which you are familiar or donate to larger national relief agencies, such as The Red Cross or Salvation Army, which are well-established and trusted organizations known for their disaster relief efforts.

Granovsky said a good rule of thumb with any organization to which you are contributing is to verify that at least 75 percent of the money donated will go to the specific effort to which you are contributing. She said going to http://www.charitynavigator.org or http://www2.guidestar.org can be helpful in assessing the legitimacy of a charity and analyzing its financial administration, and added that the Better Business Bureau website at http://www.bbb.org/us/charity can also provide information on what charities may have complaints registered against them.

“You can also go to the website for the Texas Office of the Attorney General for information or to register a complaint if you think you have been scammed by someone falsely representing a charitable organization,” Granovsky said.

The Office of the Attorney General has oversight authority over more than 50,000 active charitable organizations and trust entities, she said.

“Of course, you may want to consider giving your time to volunteering in relief efforts or providing canned foods or clothing instead of making a monetary donation,” she said. “But be sure to coordinate it with the people managing the emergency relief efforts to make sure you’re providing something the people affected by a disaster really need.”

paschattenberg@ag.tamu.edu