A national disaster like the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico truly is a tragedy for the people who live and work in the Gulf Coast states and the environment, too. For some, though, the oil spill is an opportunity. Scammers are out there looking to take your money.
According to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation's consumer protection agency, scammers are likely to use e-mail, the internet, door-to-door collections, and telephone calls and other means to ask you for money. You may be asked for a donation to help the environment, such as wildlife rescue or clean-up efforts. For a "small fee," you may be offered help with getting your claim for damages processed faster.
It's no secret we're generous when it comes to making donations at times of disaster. Be smart with your money:
- Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and other online resources to make sure the charity asking for your money is legitimate
- Ask for written materials about what exactly the donated funds will be used for, and how much of those funds actually go to that effort - like environmental clean-up or wildlife rescue - and how much goes to the costs and expenses of the charity
- Try not to donate over the phone. Instead, mail a payment directly to the charity. If you do use the phone, don't give out any personal information, like social security or bank account numbers
- Don't use cash. The best payment method is by credit card, because you usually get some fraud and theft protection from your credit card company. If the charity is a scam, you may never see your cash again and you may not be able to stop payment on a check in time. Avoid wire or money transfers at all costs
If you're careful and do a little homework, your effort to help the environment should work out.
If you have a claim connected to the oil spill, use the claims process established by BP. There is no charge for filing a claim, and there are no legitimate "expedited" claims services. If you're contacted by someone offering such a service for a fee, get as much information as possible and file a complaint with the FTC.
Be suspicious of anyone claiming to be insurance representatives or adjusters from BP or other companies associated with the Gulf oil spill. If you filed a claim through BP, you should be contacted only by someone from the claims service, and they'll identify you by your special claim number.
If you get unsolicited mail or telephone calls from someone claiming to be from BP, ask for identification and contact BP directly to verify the person's connection with BP.
Be careful about who you hire to repair any oil-related damages to your home or property:
- Don't hire someone who requires payment up front. The contractor may take your money and leave without doing any work at all, or you may not get your money back if he doesn't finish the job
- Ask to see the contractor's license and current insurance policies, such as worker's compensation insurance. Make sure he's licensed and insured in your state. If he can't or refuses to show you, don't do business with him
- Contact your local BBB to see if any complaints have been filed against the contractor
- Ask for local references who've hired the contractor. If he doesn't have any, you may not want to hire him
If you're suspicious about an offer, or if you think you've been the victim of scam, contact the FTC or your state attorney general's office immediately.
Be careful with your money. Your desire to help ease the effects of the oil spill or to begin recovering from it shouldn't cloud your judgment. That's exactly what the scammers are counting on.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is there any way I can get my money back from scammers?
- A contractor from Tennessee gave me a bid to repair my home. Is his insurance from Tennessee valid in Florida where my home is located?
- Does my homeowner's insurance cover my losses if I'm victimized by a home-repair scam?