As Irma approaches Florida, stay ahead of hurricane scams

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Even before Hurricane Irma arrived at Florida's doorstep scammers geared into action.

A GoFundMe campaign purporting to be from Miami-born singer Jason Derulo set a fundraising goal of $1 million for Irma victims before being shut down by the website. Robocalls set up by scammers are telling people that their insurance premiums are overdue and that they must pay up immediately or else risk losing their coverage.

Amazon suspended 12 third-party vendors for attaching questionable fees to flood essentials. A case of water arrived at a home accompanied with a surprise $100 delivery fee. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told the Palm Beach Post that she has been in touch with Amazon, among other firms, about cracking down on abuses.

Such scams are pretty common during times of distress. In fact, less than two weeks after Harvey made landfall in Texas, the Office of the Texas Attorney General received nearly 3,000 complaints of storm-related fraud.

It's likely that scammers will redirect their targets to Irma relief efforts. As Irma continues to accumulate damage in the Caribbean and is expected to ravage parts of Florida, the generosity of people living elsewhere unaffected is much needed. But it is crucial to exercise caution in donating to relief efforts.

Here are tips from legitimate sources on how to donate safely to Irma relief, and how to report instances of price gouging and fraud.

Know where your money is going

The Center for Internet Security reported that over 500 domain names associated with Harvey were registered as the storm approached Texas, noting that "the majority of these new domains include a combination of the words 'help,' 'relief,' 'victims,' 'recover,' 'claims', 'donate,' or "lawsuits.'"

It's crucial to exercise caution with dubious Irma websites and dubious crowdfunding accounts. See a crowdfunding page that looks suspicious with a faceless organizer—or purported to be run by a celebrity who has not endorsed the page? Report it. GoFundMe has a policy of returning donors' money if fundraising pages are shown to be fake.

Contribute to organizations that have an experience assisting in disaster relief, and be skeptical of charities that pop up solely in response to Irma. You can check out charities with the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, or GuideStar.

Think twice about texting a donation

Confirm that the charity has authorized donations via text message — and keep in mind that your contribution may not reach the charity until after your phone bill is paid. It may be faster to donate directly to the charity.

Be wary of clicking on links or opening attachments in e-mails

Don't assume that emails you get — or social media messages you see — have really been posted by the legitimate source. The Center for Internet Security recommends that people exercise extreme caution when responding to individual pleas for financial assistance such as those posted on social media, crowd funding websites, or in an email, even if it appears to originate from a trusted source.

Report suspicious organizations

Find out if a charity or fundraiser is registered in your state by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials. If the organization is not registered, consider donating to one that is.

Be skeptical if an organization will not send you information about their programs and finances: any legitimate organization will be glad to provide you with this information. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance has charity reports on thousands of U.S. charities. If you believe a scam may be taking place, you can contact the BBB to report what you know.

Report instances of price gouging

Florida governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Monday, meaning business are subject to fines of up to $25,000 for price gouging on items like food, ice, gas and lumber.

"You've got vendors trying to trick people," said Bondi."It's sickening and disgusting and we're not going to have it."

If you suspect price gouging, obtain as much information as possible in the form of estimates, invoices, receipts or bills. When comparing products, note as much information as possible, including the product name, size or quantity, manufacturer, item number and unit price. Report this information to the Bondi's office through the Florida Attorney General's Price Gouging Hotline at 1-866-966-7226.

 
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