On High Alert: How to avoid scams after a hurricane

Published: Updated:

By Melanie Pagan

The worst is over, you think, as you wave goodbye to the hero-without-a-cape contractor who arrived at your door like magic offering to repair your disheveled home post-hurricane.

Months later, when he’s taken off with the cash you paid in advance and not lifted a finger, you realize just how wrong you were.

It’s just one of the many types of fraud cases reported in Southwest Florida after storms.

“The main issue we experience regarding hurricane scams is unlicensed contracting fraud,” says Lt. Chad Parker of the Criminal Investigations Division, Financial Crimes Bureau at the Collier County Sheriff’s office. “Fraudulent contractors come to town, request upfront funds to perform the work and leave with the victims’ funds. Or, they are unlicensed to perform the work for which they are hired.”

Sheriff’s offices also receive reports of businesses over-charging for their products or services, or people fraudulently posing as relief representatives, said Claudette Smith, public information officer at the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. These criminals tend to roll through town when communities are in dire need of help.

“Unfortunately, predators come to the areas that have been hit by devastation because people are in distress,” Smith says. “There are people who are desperate and in need of assistance, and those are the people scammers are targeting.”

If you find yourself in a vulnerable state after a storm, here are ways to protect yourself from scammers.

Keep your personal information private

Scammers can make clever calls to gain personal details, so don’t open up to just anyone. “We always tell people if you don’t recognize a number, don’t answer it,” Smith says. “If it’s someone you know or someone who really needs to get hold of you, they’re going to leave a message, and you can listen to that message and call them back.” Verify the contact you’re speaking with before sharing any personal information.

Make sure workers are equipped to assist

“Homeowners need to check if a contractor is licensed and insured before hiring them or handing over any monies,” Parker says. If someone is not licensed to do business in Florida, they won’t be adequately insured. So, if you hire someone to repair your roof and there’s an issue with it, you’ll be in an even bigger mess than you were before. (Plus, unlicensed contracting is a felony during a state of emergency.) Smith recommends getting recommendations for reputable businesses through friends, family and county business inspectors. “Don’t just use Google or Facebook, because they’re not always credible.”

Take extra steps to get the truth

Just because someone in Federal Emergency Management Agency gear knocks on your door doesn’t mean they’re actually from FEMA. “Unfortunately, scammers go above and beyond sometimes to make their scams look credible,” Smith says. It’s up to you to vet the people promising you relief. “We need you to go above and beyond to ensure the person you’re dealing with is credible. You can always go to the FEMA helpline to make sure people are who they say they are.”

Avoid overpaying for products

Don’t let retailers and service providers charge you an exorbitant amount for necessities such as hotels, ice, water and generators because of a spike in demand. It’s called price gouging, and it’s illegal. Instead of paying the price, report the high costs to the Florida Office of the Attorney General.

Give back wisely

If you’re in a position to provide financial assistance to hurricane survivors, avoid contributing to independent fundraisers. “If you donate to a random GoFundMe, you have no idea where that money is going,” Smith says. Instead, try a community foundation or other established entity that can tell you precisely who benefits. If you donate to a cause directly, do your due diligence. “Vet your organizations and make sure the charities are reputable,” Smith adds.

Practice patience

It can take a long time to heal from a natural disaster, but the process is even longer when you fall for ill-intentioned actions out of desperation. “If you hire the wrong person to do the work, you may be in an even tougher spot afterward,” Smith says. “You want to make sure the work is done appropriately and correctly, so you’re not even paying more money and having it redone.”


For your reference:

  • To verify if a contractor is licensed in Florida, visit dos.myflorida.com/sunbiz/
  • For disaster assistance, visit disasterassistance.gov and FEMA.gov
  • To file a price gouging report, call (866) 9.NO.SCAM or visit myfloridalegal.com
  • If you suspect a scam, contact your local sheriff’s office:

Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office: 941.631.2101

Collier County Sheriff’s Office: 239.252.9300

Glades County Sheriff’s Office: 863.946.1600

Hendry County Sheriff’s Office: 863.674.5600

Lee County Sheriff’s Office: 239.477.1000


Claudette Smith, public information officer at Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office clsmith@ccsofl.net
Lt. Chad Parker, Criminal Investigations Division, Financial Crimes Bureau, Chad.Parker@colliersheriff.org Karie Partington, PIO, Karie.Partington@colliersheriff.org Collier County Sheriff’s Office 239-252-0069

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