By Heather McKinney~
Winter Storm Uri struck Texas in February, causing apocalyptic-level problems for Texans across the state. Seniors have been hit especially hard, left in some instances for multiple days and weeks without access to water or power. The snow and ensuing energy crisis were dangerous enough, but now fraudsters are using the disaster to run their scams on seniors in Texas.
Part of disaster recovery can come in the form of FEMA claims. Federal assistance funds can help pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs for the primary residence, uninsured and underinsured personal property losses, and medical/dental/funeral expenses caused by the disaster, along with other serious disaster-related expenses.
FEMA applications are totally free. The government will NEVER ask for an application fee or for payment to provide assistance with your application. If someone tries charging you for help with your FEMA application, hang up the phone. The applications are available free online at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA.
NEW PLUMBERS IN THE PIPELINE
Many Texans need massive plumbing repairs. The increased demand for plumbers led Governor Greg Abbott to allow out-of-state plumbers to travel to Texas and assist with repairs. The state is proving these out-of-state plumbers with provisional licenses to provide services in Texas.
The governor also waived some regulations for registered and qualified Plumber’s Apprentices in Texas. These waivers allow an entry-level plumber who has met all other qualifications, to temporarily perform plumbing repairs without “direct” supervision by a licensed plumber, which is usually required. The Plumber’s Apprentices are required to work under the “general” supervision of a qualified plumber.
Before signing any agreement for plumbing services, be sure the plumber is licensed, either traditionally or by one of these new alternative methods. Ask that the plumber provide you with proof of license, proof of insurance, and for identification. Never pay by wire transfer, gift card, or in cash as these payment methods are harder to track and dispute. Finally, never pay in full until you are satisfied, and the work is actually completed.
Plumbers are currently overwhelmed with work, which may cause prices to increase. However, Section 17.46(b) of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act makes it illegal to take advantage of a disaster by selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or other necessities at an exorbitant or excessive price. Businesses are generally allowed to increase prices but raising prices to an “exorbitant or excessive rate” to take advantage of the disaster declaration is illegal.
The Texas Attorney General is investigating companies who may be price gouging. You can file a consumer complaint online at https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/consumer-protection/file-consumer-complaint or via phone at (800) 621-0508. You may also be able to engage an attorney to help with recovering if you have been overcharged.
WAYS TO SPOT A DISASTER SCAM
As with any scam, bad actors will use high-pressure tactics, like emphasizing the need to “act now,” and demand access to your personal information. They will also pressure you to use untraceable and irreversible payment methods like wire transfer, gift cards, and cash.
Legitimate businesses accept payment via check or credit card. Remember, the federal government will never ask for payment in exchange for assistance with your disaster applications.
Keeping your personal information safe, asking for credentials, and paying via traceable methods are all ways to prevent a financial disaster on top of the snowstorm disaster we have already gone through.