Feb. 22—City, state and federal officials urge disaster survivors to watch for and report any suspicious activity or potential fraud.
"As we all shift to repairing the freeze damage, be careful selecting contractors," Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said.
Disasters often bring communities together but con artists, identity thieves and other criminals may target survivors. The most common types of post-disaster fraud include phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors, bogus pleas for disaster donations, fake offers of municipal or federal aid and charging for free services.
Scam attempts can be made over the phone, by mail or email, through the internet, or in person. It is important to remain alert, ask questions and always ask for identification when someone claims to represent the Federal Emergency Management Agency or another government agency. Con artists are creative and resourceful. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it should be questioned.
Cain offers several tips for making sure you are working with a legitimate contractor. The first one being, go local whenever possible.
"Local businesses live here and care about their reputation and will be here when this is over," he said.
Besides being local, ask for recommendations from people you trust to get an idea of who would be good to use.
You should also ask for references. Look for things such as local chamber or Better Business Bureau memberships mean that the contractor has some accountability and connections with the community.
After that check for credentials.
"Make sure your plumber, electrician or repair person has the training and expertise to do the job," Cain said. "Ask questions."
If you do encounter a scam artist or exorbitant prices, Cain said, report them to the attorney general's office.
Potential fraud should be reported to your local law enforcement agency. You can also contact the Texas Office of the Attorney General by calling 800-621-0508 or call the free FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721, available 24 hours a day.
Above it all, use common sense and be patient.
"It is going to take time to get everyone's home repaired and our local plumbers and electricians are going to be working on fumes trying to take care of everyone," Cain said. "A kind word, cool glass of water and a thank you goes a long way."
FEMA also provided tips on protecting yourself, such as:
—Don't wire money or pay with reloadable debit cards or gift cards. There is no legitimate reason to request those forms of payment.
—Don't offer personal financial information over the phone. Know who you are dealing with and always ask for identification.
Take your time to decide. In Texas, contractors are required to provide a Notice of Cancelation — which gives you the right to change your mind within three business days — if the transaction occurs in your home. Even if the transaction does not occur in your home, you can still request three days; there is no legitimate reason to refuse this request.
—Get the agreement in writing. Read the contract carefully, and if you don't understand every word, take it to an expert. Never sign a contract with blank spaces to be filled in.
—Make sure the contract details all work to be performed, the costs, a projected completion date and how to negotiate changes and settle disputes.
—Do your research. Scam artists will usually come to you to offer their services — either at your door, on the phone or through email — so be especially wary of solicitors.
—Get estimates from multiple contractors and your insurance company. Reject any offer that seems too good to be true.
—Demand satisfaction. Don't sign completion papers or make final payment until the work is done correctly.
—Take a picture of your contractor, their vehicle and license plate.
—Take a picture of your contractor's business card and driver's license.
"Please continue to help one another and thank God we got through this as well as we did," Cain said. "I know it has been a trying week, but for what it's worth, you showed the world what is great about Cleburne — it's people."
As a reminder, Texas homeowners and renters in the 77 counties designated for individual assistance who sustained damage may now apply for disaster assistance with FEMA.
The fastest and easiest way to apply is by visiting disasterassistance.gov. There is no wait to register online and it is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If it is not possible to register online, call 800-621-3362. The toll-free telephone lines operate from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Those who use a relay service such as a videophone, Innocaption or CapTel should update FEMA with their specific number assigned to that service.
Low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration are available to businesses, homeowners and renters. Call the SBA at 800-659-2955 or visit sba.gov/services/disasterassistance.