Securing Our Communities: Disaster Scams

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Disaster scams are a type of social engineering scheme in which perpetrators target and defraud victims of natural disasters, severe weather events, or other catastrophic occurrences. These scams attempt to further victimize those struggling to recover from incidents such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes, although scammers are known to exploit victims in the wake of nearly any emergency situation.

Scammers perpetrate disaster-related fraud schemes in numerous ways. They may pose as contractors offering home or property repair services to residents in impacted areas. Traveling door-to-door, they offer to fix flood, roof, or structural damage, to remove debris, or to repair vehicle damage. To entice victims into contracting their services, scammers may offer expedited processing for insurance claims, disaster assistance applications, or building permits, if victims agree to pay a deposit or other upfront fee. Despite their purported efforts to help, these scammers have no intention of rendering services as promised, either overcharging victims for substandard work or not performing any work at all. Their goal is to profit by collecting advance payments or by using victims’ signatures to submit fraudulent claims with disaster relief organizations or insurance companies.

Perpetrators of disaster scams may also pose as utility workers, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax specialists, or government safety inspectors from organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Masquerading as authority figures or people in positions of trust, they charge fees for performing phony inspections or filing government assistance paperwork and offer to help victims file for tax credits or refunds. They may also try to obtain victims’ sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information to commit identity theft and financial fraud.

In addition to door-to-door or in-person solicitation schemes, disaster scams may also come in the form of fraudulent websites, emails, phone calls, text messages, or social media messages. Scammers use these avenues to obtain victims’ personal and financial information, registration or verification numbers associated with disaster assistance applications, or other sensitive details. Scammers may also engage sympathetic donors over these platforms to conduct charity scams.

As the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events may increase with the approaching summer months, the NTIC Cyber Center encourages residents, especially those in disaster-prone zones, to review the following strategies for identifying and protecting themselves from disaster scams:

  • Never provide personal, financial, or other sensitive information to unknown solicitors in-person, over the phone, or through email, text message, or social media.

  • Verify contractors’ identification, licenses, and proof of insurance before agreeing to any service arrangements or providing any personal or sensitive information.

  • Avoid paying for contractors’ services with cash, prepaid debit cards, or via wire transfer; instead, use a traceable and reversible payment method such as a credit card or a check.

  • Remember that federal or state disaster relief workers will never charge fees for conducting inspections or for filing disaster assistance applications.

  • All FEMA representatives and contracted inspectors should possess an official FEMA laminated photo ID. For questions or verification information, contact FEMA at 1-800-621-3362.

If you believe you may have encountered or been victimized by a disaster scam, file a police report with a local law enforcement entity and consider reporting the incident to one or more of the following organizations:

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.