With the massive winter storm that’s expected to hit the East Coast this weekend, here are some tips to help consumers protect themselves during and after a disaster, including how to spot possible opportunists, bad deals and con-artists:
Take photos: Here’s a good idea for all homeowners anytime, but especially those dealing with storm/ weather damage: Take photos and videos now of your home and belongings, if you can do it safely, so you can better document any losses.
Protect your pets: People forced to evacuate need to know if hotels or shelters will take their pets. Pets Welcome is a good resource for that information for shelters and hotels. Additionally, many hotels relax their pet policies and waive pet fees during a natural disaster. Call ahead to find out. If people do have to leave their pets behind, PETA recommends leaving at least 10 days’ worth of food and water. Bring Fido offers these additional tips to keep your dog safe during a winter storm, hurricane or other emergency.
Use generators with extreme caution: When the power is knocked out – whether from a winter storm or a hurricane – portable generators can be important for powering refrigerators, medical devices and other needs in the home. But, if not operated properly, portable generators are extremely dangerous to people and pets. Portable generators emit carbon monoxide, a gas that can be a silent killer. The odorless, colorless and tasteless gas causes “flu-like” symptoms and can cause loss of consciousness. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that 70 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning associated with portable generators.
Watch out for fraud and scams: After past disasters, con artists have posed as federal employees, insurance agents and housing inspectors to steal information and money. Fake flood robocalls have promised victims money for simple information.
— People can take several steps to protect themselves:
— Ask for appropriate identification. Don’t give out personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank account information, policy numbers or anything else to someone you didn’t contact independently.
— Remember FEMA doesn’t charge anyone to submit an application.
— Don’t give anyone a large deposit or down payment before they provide their goods or services.
— And don’t pay in cash or with a wire transfer or gift card.
Be on guard for price gouging: Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey, New York and 33 other states have anti-price gouging laws that protect consumers from prices that are inflated under certain circumstances after an emergency. If a business is hiking prices for gas, water, building supplies, food, ice or other needs, people should report it to their state attorney general’s office immediately. Here is a list of the contact information for all 50 state attorneys general.
Make sure your food is safe: If you lose power, be careful about using using refrigerated/ frozen foods that thaw. Your refrigerator will keep food safe for up to four hours without power if you keep the door shut as much as possible.
— Perishable foods like meat, dairy, fish and leftovers should get tossed after four hours of no power.
— For frozen foods, a full freezer will hold a safe temperature for around 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full and the door stays closed). Stacking food closer together can help if stay cold for longer.
— Perishables (frozen or refrigerated) that get to 40 °F for more than two hours should get thrown out.
Watch out for identity theft: Identity theft can compound your problems after a disaster. Storm victims are particularly vulnerable. U.S. law allows anyone to freeze their credit files at no cost. People can find out more here about how to protect themselves from identity theft.
File claims quickly: Report your claim as soon as possible because insurance companies generally process claims first come, first served, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Also, insurers should not raise your rate for filing a hurricane claim or fail to renew your policy for filing one, CFA said. Make detailed lists of losses, including living expenses and debris removal, and keep all receipts.
Vet contractors: Homeowners should use only licensed contractors with verifiable references to work on their property. When interviewing contractors, homeowners should ask for proof of their insurance and bonding, and about their past experience repairing damage from flooding or other disasters and their mold remediation practices. Each state has a Board of Contractors that offers a full list of licensed contractors. Homeowners can also get advice from FEMA.
Avoid scammers posing as charities: Con-artists will try to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune and people’s big hearts by soliciting donations that won’t really go to help disaster victims after all. Check out this guide from the Federal Trade Commission on donating wisely and avoiding ripoffs.
Get estimates: If possible, get multiple estimates from contractors to help you file a claim that will be accurate when it’s time to pay the bill.
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers' health, safety and financial security. Prior to her current role, she worked as a journalist and columnist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio's largest daily newspaper. She is the recipient of dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, Best Business Writer in Ohio, and National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Among the accomplishments she’s most proud of is receiving a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected at least 15 million customers nationwide. Her work caused Verizon to reach an $80 million settlement with the FCC, the largest ever imposed at that time. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons and a dog. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.