Attorneys general are tasked with the job of protecting consumers during all stages of a disaster. Most attorneys general have consumer protection and education initiatives that promote their consumer protection role before disaster strikes so that consumers know where to turn when issues arise.
Attorney general offices often address the following consumer protection challenges in the wake of natural and manmade disasters:
- Price gouging
- Dishonest or crooked contractors or repair services
- Fraudulent charitable solicitation
Scammers sometimes use natural disasters as an opportunity to defraud consumers. Attorneys general enforce consumer protection laws to protect their constituents during and after disasters. Examples of fraud following disasters include:
- Misrepresentations regarding products in high demand following a disaster; for example: offers of false cures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Sale of flood damaged cars after hurricanes or other storms.
- Imposter scams where scammers are posing as government officials, nonprofit organizations, or other trusted parties in order to fraudulently obtain money or sensitive personal information.
Attorney general offices use state consumer protection and other applicable statutes as a tool in their consumer protection role.
Price gouging refers to sellers taking advantage of consumers during emergencies by charging too much for essential consumer goods. Many state price gouging laws are triggered when a disaster or emergency is declared by the president, governor, or a municipality.
Many attorneys general offices have hotlines or apps (to make it easier for citizens of their states to report price gouging. Visit ConsumerResources.org to file a complaint in your state.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson says he “is investigating price gouging in the wake of the COVID-19 public-health emergency.” Ferguson asks that anyone who sees price gouging file a complaint with his office.
More coronavirus updates: https://t.co/oEntB2J900
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) March 4, 2020
Dishonest Contractors or Repair Services
Natural disasters often dramatically increase demand for contractors and repair services, raising the potential for issues like:
- Cleanup or repair scams where the contractor receives upfront payment for services and then does little or no work at all.
- Contractors or repair services who perform shoddy work or work that was not contracted for at all and pressure consumers – often senior citizens – to pay exorbitant charges.
- Contractors who charge more than what was quoted for no legitimate reason.
- Contractors falsely claiming to be working with the consumer’s insurance adjuster or inaccurately stating repairs will be covered by homeowners’ insurance.
- Contractors falsely stating they are licensed by the appropriate licensing entity.
- Contractors operating without required insurance coverages.
Attorney general offices seek to educate consumers about the warning signs of unscrupulous contractors. General tips include asking for references, proof of contractor licenses, workers compensation insurance, written estimates, the scope of work in detail, and a copy of the contractor’s photo identification before hiring a contractor to make repairs. Attorneys general also investigate instances of consumer fraud to recover consumers’ losses and punish those responsible.
Fraudulent charitable solicitation
Charitable organizations provide important services to victims of natural and manmade disasters. Often, however, scammers create fake charities after disasters preying on consumers’ good natures and desires to help those in need. These scammers take the donations of well-meaning citizens and divert the funds to their own use or purposes rather than assisting disaster victims. Some scammers use names that sound very much like well-known legitimate charities or make false statements about their affiliation with groups or government agencies in order to sound legitimate. Preventing charity scams following a disaster has become more difficult with today’s private-party, crowdsourced solicitations for donations or financial support.
Attorney general offices work to ensure that charitable efforts following natural disasters or manmade incidents are legitimate and that organizations and individuals distribute money and other resources raised in appropriate ways.
To educate consumers, attorney general offices often make available lists of charities who are legally authorized to solicit contributions and provide tips to educate consumers and help them distinguish between legitimate charities and scams, as well as to promote giving wisely.