Capital Weather Gang • Perspective
We still don’t know how to talk about floods
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scammers using robo-calls about insurance to fleece Hurricane Harvey survivors

The director of FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program, Roy Wright, said fraudulent robo-calls have tried to extort people over flood insurance in Texas. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Amid the many feel-good stories about strangers helping strangers in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a feel-bad story has almost inevitably surfaced: Scammers are using robo-calls to try to fleece storm survivors.

The robo-calls tell people that their premiums are past due and that they must send money immediately or else have their flood insurance canceled.

“That is pure fraud. You should only be taking information from trusted sources,” said Roy E. Wright, director of the National Flood Insurance Program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Every natural disaster attracts unscrupulous contractors and outright con artists. They’re like disaster parasites, looking to exploit the pain and confusion of a catastrophe for their own profit.

“They’re storm chasers. We know they’re here. We’re know they’re coming. Scammers,” said Saundra Brown, who handles disaster response for Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.

She described a typical move by dishonest contractors: They ask a survivor to sign a contract for repairs on a digital tablet, but when printed out, the bid is thousands of dollars higher. Or the survivor may have unwittingly assigned FEMA disaster aid over to the scammer.

“Don’t hire anyone you don’t trust. Always get it in writing. Always get a personal reference. Be hypervigilant now,” said Brown, whose organization is contending with its own calamity after an explosion and fire at its office building during the storm.

Wright, speaking Thursday at an early-morning news briefing at FEMA headquarters in Washington, also tried to knock down another rumor: That people enrolled in the national program need to file a claim no later than today, before a new state law governing lawsuits against insurance companies goes into effect Sept. 1. He pointed out that the state law has no bearing on the National Flood Insurance Program.

He urged people to return to their homes and begin documenting damage with photographs — but only after they are certain it is safe to do so.

“If it’s not safe to return to your home, have no concern. We will wait for you,” Wright said.

Alex Amparo, head of FEMA’s disaster recovery program, said that 325,000 people have registered for assistance from FEMA as of Thursday morning and that $57 million has already been paid out through electronic transfers. He said 8,000 families have been relocated to 9,000 hotels and motels under FEMA’s temporary housing program.

Amparo also gave a shout-out to all the ordinary citizens who have helped neighbors and even total strangers, saying their actions were “really showing the world what’s best about America.”

FEMA has a rumor-control Web page. The agency urges people to hang up if they receive a robo-call about insurance. “Insurance companies and agents selling flood insurance policies do not use this process to communicate with customers about their flood insurance policies. In fact, if your payment is past due, your insurance company will send you several pieces of mail 90, 60, and 30 days before the policy expires,” FEMA states.

FEMA has also confirmed that there are people who are impersonating federal officials. The agency states that real Homeland Security Investigations officials have badges labeled “special agent” and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers with Enforcement and Removal Operations have badges saying “ERO Officer.” People should ask to see the badges and credentials when someone visits them claiming to be officials from these organizations, FEMA said.

“Ask for identification and don’t be afraid to hang up on cold callers,” the agency advises. And: “Don’t sign anything you don’t understand or contracts with blank spaces.”