Be wary of oil spill scams

Linda Benedict, Tucker, Jeanette A.  |  1/4/2011 1:12:50 AM

News Release Distributed 06/28/10

Consumers and businesses are advised to be alert for scams following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and to report their experiences to federal and state authorities, advises Jeanette Tucker, LSU AgCenter extension family economist.

Scammers will use e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, flyers, mailings and telephone calls to solicit money. Some solicitors may claim they’re working for environmental causes, or they may offer fraudulent services – like remediation services – related to the oil spill, Tucker says.

Others may claim they can expedite loss claims for a fee. Still others may knock on your door and talk about placing booms or checking for oil on your property. Chances are they’re trying to gain your trust to get inside your home or get access to your personal information.

“You must verify the legitimacy of the solicitor before making a donation or entering into any agreement for services,” Tucker said.

Here are some guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

– Scam artists may pose as authorized adjusters and ask for fees to expedite services. ESIS, BP’s authorized claims administrator, is not charging individuals or companies any fee to process claims. If you make a claim, you are assigned a claims number through the BP hotline at 1-800-440-0858. An authorized ESIS adjuster will contact you to further verify and process the claim for payment. If you are not satisfied with the resolution, you may call the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC) at 1-800-280-7118, or visit the NPFC for more information at: www.uscg.mil/npfc/Claims/default.asp.

– Scam artists may pretend to be government officials – and then require a processing fee to provide government services. The government does not require processing fees.

– Verify that you are dealing with authorized representatives of BP, and don’t sign waivers of liability too quickly without getting adequate legal and financial counsel.

– Report to your state insurance commissioner anyone making false or exaggerated insurance claims.

– Report anyone who is making insurance claims but lives outside the disaster zone.

– Don’t do business with contractors who require up-front payment for services. You will be out the money if they fail to perform the work or finish the job to your specifications or satisfaction.

– Require any contractors to detail the services they will perform on a written contract. Use only licensed contractors.

– Some people may misrepresent an affiliation with an environmental organization when they ask for donations via e-mail or social networking sites. If you’re tempted to contribute, check out the charity at www.bbb.org/us/charity, the website of the Better Business Bureau. Tucker also says check www.charitynavigator.com to explore the financial health of charitable organizations.

– Some sham organizations may use copy-cat names to cash in on the reputations of older, more established charities.

– Rather than clicking on a link to a purported website, verify the legitimacy of a nonprofit organization by using search engines and other online resources to confirm the group’s existence, mission and nonprofit status.

– To ensure your contributions are received and used for the purposes you intend, contribute directly to organizations you know rather than relying on other people to make a donation on your behalf. If you get pressure to make a contribution, look for another charity. Reputable charities don’t use those kinds of tactics.

– Avoid donating cash if possible. Pay by debit or credit card, or write a check directly to the charity. If an organization suggests you wire your donation to them, cross them off your list. Legitimate charities do not solicit donations via money transfer services.

– Most legitimate charity websites end in .org rather than .com. For more information on the warning signs of a charity scam, visit www.ftc.gov/charityfraud.

– Avoid any job or volunteer opportunities that require you to pay a fee before the job begins.

If you suspect fraudulent activity related to the oil spill, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) at 1-866-720-5721; e-mail disaster@leo.gov; or fax 225-334-4707. Established after Hurricane Katrina, the NCDF investigates suspected fraud from any natural or human-made disaster. More than 20 federal agencies, including the FTC, participate in the NCDF.

You should also contact the Consumer Protection Section of the state attorney general’s office at 1-800-351-4889.

To file a complaint with the FTC, go to ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

Linda Foster Benedict
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