Sheriff Warns of Post-Hurricane Scams

Putnam County Sheriff Donald B. Smith is alerting area residents who may be affected by Hurricane Sandy to be on guard against potential scams that may follow in the wake of the storm.

Smith noted that opportunistic con-artists and thieves have exploited past calamities, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to defraud people who are rendered distracted or desperate during such times. “The scam-artists approach people who are in need of aid, such as home repairs or monetary support, and they promise them a helping hand — but then they rip them off,” he said.

Fake charities

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many cases arose involving phony charity websites. A scam-artist may set up a look-alike website that mimics that of a legitimate charity, to phish for donors’ financial data. Residents might also be approached in person or receive a telephone call from someone claiming to represent a charity. Smith cautioned anyone who wished to donate money to aid Hurricane Sandy victims to first check out the soliciting organization or to donate to well-established and widely known charities involved in storm-relief efforts.

Home repair scams

For those impacted by Sandy, home repair scams can be hard to spot. Without electrical power, it is not easy to check the credentials of a contractor who shows up at a person’s house or to research fair prices for an item like a generator. Homeowners in need of immediate aid are in an especially precarious position.

For example, if a resident’s basement is flooded, or there’s a downed tree on the roof, a contractor offering on-the-spot repairs might present what seems like a tempting deal. But it’s rarely a wise option, because the contractor may turn out to be unlicensed and perform shoddy work or may even be a scam-artist who simply takes the homeowner’s money and absconds without doing any work at all.

To avoid being ripped off by home repair scams, residents should check out a prospective contractor with the Putnam County Consumer Affairs Bureau by calling 845-808-1617 or visiting the Bureau offices at 110 Old Route 6 in Carmel. Only licensed and insured contractors are allowed to perform home repair services within the county.

Homeowners should obtain work estimates from at least three licensed contractors before signing a home-repair contract and should not sign a contract until first consulting with their insurance company to confirm coverage for repairs. The Better Business Bureau advises consumers to never pay in cash for work done.

Internet and Telephone Scams

The Sheriff’s Office has received reports of Internet phishing scams directed at local residents. In one such incident, the intended victim received an email message purporting to be from his bank, seeking personal financial data. In days following the storm, an email might state that the bank facilities were damaged by wind or flood and that the bank needs the person’s financial data to ensure the protection of the monies in his or her account. The Sheriff warned that one should never disclose personal financial data in response to an unsolicited email or telephone call.

The Sheriff’s Office also received a call from at least one local resident this week reporting a familiar sweepstakes scam. The resident received a telephone call from a man advising him that he had won a multimillion dollar foreign lottery drawing. The caller advised the intended target that a courier would deliver the winning ticket to him, but that the winner first had to wire $499 to the caller to pay for the courier.

“When people are hurting financially from the storm effects and think that a promise of money coming out of the blue may be an answer to prayers, they might forget that ‘what seems too good to be true probably is’ and fall for the scam,” noted Smith.

Flooded cars

Cars damaged by flooding can often turn up for sale within weeks of a storm. The cars can have electrical and mechanical problems from being under water, which can lead to extensive repairs for their new owners. The corrosive effects of saltwater can also make cars unsafe, eating through insulation and wiring and causing malfunctions. Spotting a damaged car is not easy, as they often turn up for sale before there are obvious signs like mildew.

But experts say consumers can generally avoid problems by getting a vehicle history report, in which damage from flooding should be noted. A prospective car buyer should also have the car checked by a mechanic before purchasing it if any problem is suspected.

Price gouging

Shortages of some consumer goods in the days following the storm may create an opportunity for price gouging by some sellers. Residents who wish to report suspected gouging should call the Putnam County Consumer Affairs Bureau at 845-808-1617 or the New York State Attorney General’s Office Division of Consumer Protection at 800-697-1220.

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