Disasters disrupt life in unimaginable ways, making those affected much more vulnerable to secondary disasters — the kind caused by criminals. I've been through a number of earthquakes and lost a home to Hurricane Sandy. I know how all-consuming the aftermath can be.
Wildfires, tornadoes and other natural disasters seem to be happening more and more these days. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be "above normal and possibly extremely active."
The danger and chaos that inevitably follow a natural (or for that matter — man-made) disaster, create opportunities for predators, who seem to slither out from under the rocks to prey upon their victims: identity thieves, burglars, snake oil salesmen disguised as home improvement contractors and fraudsters claiming to be raising funds to help ease the pain.
We can and have learned from past disasters that meaningful preparation can pay big dividends in helping people deal with and recover from the unimaginable. Here are some suggestions that might help you weather the disaster.
Have a family emergency disaster plan. Disasters can strike with little or no warning at any moment of the day. It is quite likely that many families are not together. Parents can be either at work or at home. Kids can be at school. Family members can be running chores or away on business trips or vacations. Therefore, you should develop a communication plan that establishes who you contact and when you contact them in the event of an emergency. You should also agree upon primary and secondary meeting places.
Keep emergency numbers handy for key support functions and home utilities. Create a list of all emergency service phone numbers, as well as those for your utility companies that provide electric power, natural gas, water and telephone services. Know where your shut-off switches and/or valves are for these services and how to shut them down. In event of a pending or significant disaster, turning off the electric, gas and water utilities -- if it can be safely done -- can help prevent secondary fires, explosions and internal flooding to your residence.
Make copies (front and back) of the documents that confirm your identity and allow you to buy what you need. Birth certificates, driver's licenses and passports; Social Security, voter's registration and medical insurance cards; credit and debit cards. Also, make sure you have the customer service information for financial institutions and credit card companies as well as your credit and debit card numbers so you can contact them immediately and arrange for credit and debit card replacement in the event they are lost. You may wish to store this information in an encrypted file so that you can access it online. In the physical world, you may want to store a copy of these documents either in a waterproof container that can be secured in a safe place or scan them onto a password protected, encrypted USB drive that you always carry with you.
Consider remote electronic data storage for irreplaceable documents or photographs. If you have some irreplaceable or historical documents, trust and estate documents such as wills and Powers of Attorney or special family photographs, consider scanning them onto a disk and/or storing them in an accessible online electronic vault.
Record model and serial numbers for your big-ticket items. For insurance and property identification purposes, record the model and serial numbers for items such as your flat screen televisions, computer equipment, cameras, audio gear, musical instruments, or other valuable personal belongings. It is wise to photograph these items as well in order to prove possession and store the photos on disk and/or in an electronic vault so they can be easily retrieved.
Assemble a "crash kit." Pack a small suitcase or duffel bag with items such as sensitive documents, your wallet, purse, ATM and credit cards that you will need to grab in an emergency in order to secure them AND have 24-hour access to cash or purchasing power if needed. Also have your house, office and car keys close at hand. They may well provide access to secondary shelter.
Have a survival kit ready to go. Pack a separate bag with flashlights (LEDs preferred for battery life), extra batteries, a portable radio, a sharp utility knife, toilet paper, several bottles of water and energy food bars, a couple of lighters or match books, a portable first aid kit, other supplies and (of great psychic value) a few pairs of socks and underwear. Remember that you may well have to travel fast and light so be selective.
Keep your cell phones charged and bring chargers with you in the event of evacuation.
Consider utilizing the available special notification and alert features offered by many banks, credit and debit card issuers that will notify you via email or text when an unusual transaction occurs in one of your accounts – this is a good practice regardless of disaster planning.
If You Are a Disaster Victim
Protect important information and documents. Whether you're in a shelter, staying with friends or crashing on your family's couch, never let the documents that can authenticate you leave your sight.
Be proactive and check your credit report by visiting AnualCreditReport.com. Consider adding an initial security alert to your credit report. For more information go to the websites of each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union). Monitoring your credit scores regularly, using a free service like Credit.com's Credit Report Card, can alert you to a problem if you have an unexpected drop.
Ask the post office to hold your mail until you return home. If it appears that you will be unable to return home for an extended period of time, you may even consider getting a post office box. This will keep thieves from finding sensitive materials that are left in your mailbox.
Store sensitive documents in an encrypted email account that you can access if needed.
When filing claims with insurance, if you did not do so before the disaster, ask if your policy provides identity theft assistance and what are the parameters of your coverage.
Check your credit card and bank accounts online daily. In the event you detect unauthorized or questionable activity, immediately contact the appropriate financial services provider.
In the Aftermath of a Disaster
Be alert to the fact that there are many unscrupulous people who will look to take advantage of a disaster. Be on guard for:
- Fly-by-night contractors asking for advanced payments for board-up and/or repair work.
- Scam operators looking to obtain personal or financial information from you under the pretext of helping you or being "an official" from an emergency assistance agency – like FEMA, or an insurance adjuster, investigator, etc.
- Thieves and looters roaming impacted neighborhoods.
- Individuals soliciting funds door to door, in public areas, or via the Internet claiming to assist the victims.
While this information is helpful, it is not exhaustive. Furthermore, you can take every step outlined above and still be a victim because you will never really know where all your information has landed. That said, there is no substitute for preparation and remaining cautious and alert before, during and after a disaster.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.