The victims of the 2005 hurricane season have suffered tremendously -- but for some, the worst financial damage may be yet to come.
As the post-hurricane cleanup continues around the Gulf Coast, state officials are reminding residents about the threat of scam artists seeking to bilk them out of money.
Legal authorities say they've seen scams like price gouging, home repair fraud, vehicle license forgery and even identity theft related to the hurricanes. And the conniving minds looking to profit illegally from the hurricane damage could eventually touch the lives, and finances, of people across the country.
Pumping Up Prices for Illegal Profits
Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, there were widely publicized accusations of price gouging ranging from gas to groceries to hotel rooms.
The consumer protection division of the Mississippi attorney general normally receives about 200 calls per day. That number jumped to around 1,400 per day in the weeks following Katrina, and more than 2,000 price gouging complaints have been investigated.
"On Tuesday -- the day after Katrina -- we got back into the offices and started fielding calls right away," said Jacob Ray, special assistant to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. "Gas gouging was first, then people started telling us that they saw bags of ice on sale for $10, and reporting hotel rooms pumping up the rates three and four times the normal rate."
Once a state of emergency was declared, retailers were forbidden by law from raising prices to boost their profit margins.
"If a business incurs an increase in the cost of getting goods to consumers, you can raise prices. Otherwise it's illegal," said Jennifer Cluck, spokesman for the Louisiana attorney general's office. "When they first hit, we got a lot of calls about price gouging -- from gas to generators, hotel rooms, bottled water. We even got one complaint about the price of Vienna sausages, so it was anything and everything."
A hotel manager in Mississippi who pumped up prices now faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti filed suit against a campground that allegedly eliminated daily rates and forced all customers to pay a $900 monthly fee. Both offices say more arrests and lawsuits are likely.
Make Your Contractor Sign a Contract
As the weeks pass and people begin repairing their damaged homes, the nature of consumer complaints has changed, authorities said.
"We've seen a shift. We're getting a lot of contractor complaints -- either people have paid for work that's not done or not done to the satisfaction of the customer," Cluck said.
Contractor scams can come in a variety of forms. The attorneys general are warning consumers to be aware of people posing as licensed contractors, as well as actual contractors who raise labor or materials costs to unreasonable levels. It's important, they said, to limit up-front payments and make sure the contractor performs all work to the specifications agreed upon.
"If you've paid for a four-inch concrete slab in your foundation, and they only put in three inches, it could start cracking after a couple years," said Grant Hedgepeth of the Mississippi attorney general's office. "Most of these problems will be going on for years, because contractor problems sometimes take that long to show up."
Both states have heard numerous complaints about people posing as contractors. Fake contractors typically ask for up-front payments, often thousands of dollars, for work they have no intention of doing. It's particularly effective when they approach distressed people who are trying to repair their homes quickly, and they often prey on the elderly.
"They'll find a little old lady in her yard and tell her that her roof needs to be replaced. They say, 'I've got a list of 15 people in your neighborhood who I'm working with, so give me a $10,000 deposit and I'll come back and fix your roof when I'm done with the others.' Then they disappear," said Ray.
Authorities stressed the importance of getting a written contract for any work. It's also a good rule of thumb, Hedgepeth said, to make sure that a contractor is bonded or insured by the state and to ask to see the driver's license and license plate number of any contractor performing work on a home.
"If they're unwilling to give that information, I wouldn't hire them," he said.
The Threat of Identity Theft
In September, police in Laurel, Miss., arrested three New Orleans residents on charges of identity theft after they allegedly posed as representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and tried to get bank account information from hurricane evacuees housed in a Laurel shelter.
Identity theft, though probably less widespread, is potentially the most financially dangerous scam hurricane survivors face.
"We've heard of people impersonating FEMA people, impersonating people from our office -- they see people cleaning up their homes and ask them for as much personal information they can get to steal their IDs," Ray said.
In Louisiana, checks by actual FEMA personnel and charity organizations like the Red Cross have already turned up some possible victims.
"People who are signing up for assistance from FEMA or the Red Cross have to enter their Social Security numbers. We've gotten calls from 30 people who found out their Social Security numbers were already in use," Cluck said.
They stress the importantance of doing research into any charity assistance requests to ensure the organization is legitimate and the representative is authentic. That due diligence applies to charity donations, too.
Jeffrey Modisett is a California lawyer and was the attorney general of Indiana when the Ohio River flooded the state in 1997. He saw a lot of charity impersonators trying to bilk local residents and said it's important for both consumers and legal officials to be on the lookout for scammers.
"You cannot assume that, because the organization uses the name 'Katrina Relief' or 'Red Cross,' that makes it a legitimate organization. Charities are not going to be soliciting, and if they are soliciting they're probably going to be fake," he said.
Beware of Buying Flooded Used Cars
Modisett also pointed out a scam that could spell financial trouble for people living outside the Gulf Coast region -- used car sales. Flooded cars typically have a variety of engine and electrical problems, and most are sold to salvage yards for parts.
Most states require that a flooded vehicle's title acknowledge the car as flood-damaged. But Modisett said crooks have been known to doctor titles and sell flooded cars to out-of-state buyers. A quick check of the vehicle identification number will tell a buyer if the car came from Louisiana or Mississippi or any other area that could have caused flood damage.
"Over the next year, a slew of cars will be sold that don't indicate flooding," Modisset said. "So if you're buying a used car -- whether you're in Washington or Oklahoma or wherever -- you really need to run a check on the VIN to make sure you know what you're getting."