In the wake of Hurricane Florence striking the Carolinas in mid-September, banks, consumer watchdogs and regulators continue to caution consumers around the country about financial scams invading your social media feeds, email inboxes and elsewhere.
“Be skeptical. Be cautious,” says Trevor Buxton, an assistant vice president of fraud communications with PNC Bank and a certified fraud examiner.
Buxton’s advice underscores the growing risk of financial fraud: After a disaster, con artists move in to strike with bogus charities and other scams designed to steal your money or identity. The malicious actors are counting on sympathetic consumers who want to help those affected by the natural disaster. “They prey on that sensibility,” Buxton says.
While some scams take months before detecting, here are four financial frauds to watch out for now.
1. Counterfeit charities
The warning signs that fake charities are popping up to solicit donations for victims of Hurricane Florence are there.
In advance of the storm making landfall, the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center published an advisory that said it detected a spike in registered domains with words like “relief” and “funds” that were likely related to Hurricane Florence — an indicator of potential scams.
“It is highly likely that more scams and malware will follow over the course of the recovery period, so internet users need to exercise caution before opening related emails, clicking links, visiting websites, or making donations to relief efforts,” MS-ISAC wrote in the advisory.
This week, well-known security blogger Brian Krebs also cautioned consumers about Hurricane Florence-related charity scams. In a post on Krebs on Security, Krebs wrote: “A slew of new domains apparently related to Hurricane Florence relief efforts are now accepting donations on behalf of victims without much accountability for how the money will be spent.”
2. Phishing scams
Phishing attacks, which are a persistent problem, will continue to strike in the aftermath of the storm. These attacks often involve emails that look like they’re coming from something legitimate, like a bank. In reality, they are an attempt to get you to click on a link that contains malware, for instance.
The Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center issued a warning for users to “exercise caution in handling any email with a subject line, attachments, or hyperlinks related to the hurricane, even if it appears to originate from a trusted source.”
Fraudsters may also contact you via text messages or phone calls and bait you with social media pleas for help to steal your personal information.
“If requests are unsolicited, you should be automatically skeptical,” Buxton says.
3. Investment scams
Watch out for investment scams that promise big returns in the storm’s recovering period.
Prior to the hurricane hitting, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority issued a warning for investors to watch out for unsolicited communications about hurricane-related opportunities, such as stocks related to fixing future flood-related issues.
“Best bets for scams include stocks associated with clean-up, rebuilding and breakthroughs in science and technology that purport to address current and future flood-related issues,” FINRA wrote in its warning.
4. People knocking on your door to offer deals
For those living in the affected areas, question the people who knock on your doors. They may say they are housing inspectors or contractors, but they might be imposters who are trying to steal your money.
“After every disaster, we see these issues pop up again and again,” says Adam Garber, a consumer watchdog at U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The federation of state PIRGs urges consumers to ask for their identification and to avoid passing out personal data, like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers. The group also recommends that consumers refrain from giving someone a large deposit before receiving goods or services.
“Be aware of what information you are giving out and to whom,” Garber says. “Think twice before giving it out.”
What else can you do to prevent crimes?
While it’s tough to distinguish between something that is legitimate and something that isn’t, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of getting conned, including:
- Exercise caution before making a donation. Before making a donation, use websites like Charity Navigator or GuideStar to verify whether a charity is really a charity.
- Don’t open links or attachments from emails with addresses you don’t recognize. Also, keep in mind that illegitimate emails could look authentic, so look closely for con clues like promises of prizes.
- If you spot a fraudster, report him or her to the attorneys general to help others avoid falling for a scam and alert your network. “Warn your friends and neighbors,” Garber says.
- Question those who come to your door, claiming to be contractors or from the government. Quiz them on why something is so cheap or why they want certain information, like your Social Security number.
Bottom line: “If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true,” Garber says.