Thousands of people will continue to recover from the disaster of Hurricane Sandy for months and perhaps years to come as they seek to rebuild their homes, their businesses — and their lives. The future will most likely bring changes to the east coast of the United States in terms of preventative planning, awareness, and development of new methods to protect lives and property.
Those affected by the storm have been devastated from damage and loss and many have remained in dark, cold homes fearful that looters will rob what is left of their possessions. Unfortunately, when people are most vulnerable it’s the time when criminals and fraudsters gear up to take advantage.
“While people can protect themselves from theft and looting by being aware and taking precautions, they must also protect themselves from the not so obvious — fraud and financial criminal activity that always follows after a disaster,” states Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, founder and president of the Hetherington Group (www.hetheringtongroup.com), a private investigations firm specializing in internet investigations, research, forensics, and training.
Fraudsters will attempt to steal money under the guise of a false charity; attempt to sell a hurricane ravaged car; steal food stamps, FEMA money, clothes, food and blankets that are donated by concerned citizens; and will make promises of reconstructing property for a nominal fee in record-breaking time.
In times of disaster, both sides of the coin are preyed upon — those in need of relief and those looking to aid relief. The government takes great care to ensure that aid recipients are verifiable. But, as citizens we need to be vigilant as well.
For those in need of disaster relief: cleanup, rebuilding, financial, and restoration; here are some tips that will keep you safe:
Tips for those SEEKING RELIEF
- Contact your insurance carrier to report all damage that has occurred. Take pictures and document the damage yourself. Do not remove anything until your insurance has inspected the damage themselves.
- Be wary of wandering carpenters and workmen who want to repair your home. They might not be insured or even licensed.
- If you lost power and TV, contact your provider when you get back online and ask for a refund of the days you were without.
- If you lost food, contact your home insurance. It might be covered under your house policy.
For those who are simply looking to help, these are steps the Hetherington Group recommends to protect from yourself from fraud and to make sure those who need the aid will benefit:
- Do not respond to any unsolicited e-mails or click on links contained within those messages because they may contain computer viruses or malware.
- Social networks and email will be used heavily to solicit donations. Vet and verify the source of the requester before responding or donating. You can check with your Secretary of State (www.e-secretaryofstate.com) to verify if the charity is legitimate.
- Contractors and handymen will be popping up everywhere looking to repair your roof, cut down your trees, and fix broken items. Be sure to check your phone book for the Department of Consumer Affairs in your state to see that they are appropriately licensed. And ask for proof of insurance.
- Beware of organizations with copycat names that are similar to, but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities (i.e. Red Star vs Red Cross). Be especially vigilant of groups calling your home for solicitations. Most legitimate charities websites end in .org rather than .com.
- Rather than following a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of non-profit organizations by checking them out in Guidestar.org or with the Secretary of State where the charity is located. (Do an “Entity Search” here http://www.e-secretaryofstate.com)
- Make your contribution directly to reputable organizations (such as the Red Cross), and not to an individual or anyone who claims to represent them or sounds like them. This is especially true when directly “texting” a contribution. Credit card, personal check is recommended. Never donate with cash.
- Do not purchase a flood-damaged vehicle. A vehicle history report is available through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) available at www.vehiclehistory.gov.
- Be wary of replacement products that come at a very cheap price. Drywall from China was used to rebuild homes in Katrina. Contractors were elated at cheap price and ready supply, only later to learn that it was toxic and need to be replaced.
In 2005 the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice set up the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, NCDF’s purpose is to receive and screen reports from the public about possible fraud relating to disasters of all types, and to refer those reports to the field offices of appropriate federal law enforcement agencies.
Members of the public who wish to report disaster-related fraud or are aware of fraudulent claims that have been submitted, may contact the NCDF through their website at: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/disasters/about/report-fraud.html or at (877) 623-3423 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Remember when in doubt, check them out,” Hetherington continues. “Conducting due diligence before handing over or investing your money is as smart as having a full tank of gas or a generator on hand before the storm, and is an important step in protecting yourself in post-disaster recovery.”
About Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE:
Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE has more than 18 years of experience in research, investigations, and corporate intelligence. She is the founder of Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm focusing on intelligence, security, and investigations. Cynthia is also the ACFE James Baker "Speaker of the Year" Award Recipient 2012.
Cynthia applies her expertise in library science and information systems to provide clients with strategic insight into research and complex investigations. During her career, she has assisted a vast number of clients with Internet investigations related to employee theft and intellectual property loss. Cynthia has also applied her research skills while conducting online and database research to uncover well-hidden relations between fraudulent associates, their assets, and their secrets. She has experience overseeing international investigations for Fortune 500 companies and other organizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.
A widely published author, Cynthia authored Business Background Investigations (2007) and the Manual to Online Public Records (2008), published by Facts on Demand Press as well as co-authoring Web of Deceit: Misinformation and Manipulation in the Age of Social Media (2012) by Information Today. She is the publisher of Data2know.com: Internet & Online Intelligence Newsletter and has authored articles on steganography, computer forensics, Internet investigations, and other security-focused monographs.
Cynthia is also recognized for providing corporate security officials; military intelligence units; and federal, state, and local agencies with training on online intelligence practices. Cynthia's classes are ACFE, NASBA, DHS and ASIS approved for continuing professional education credits.