Hurricane Sandy Scammers Try to Profit From Disaster

Written by Cait Russell  |  07. November 2012

One of the major benefits of the technological age is the ability to share information more quickly and efficiently than ever before. The price we pay for this advance of information is the relative ease of spreading misinformation passed off as news – something that has become quite common on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Many of these rumors start as harmless gags such as edited photos, however there are some more vicious rumors including one promising aid to Sandy victims, and illegitimate pleas for help from scam artists who are looking to profit from this disaster. Well-intended social media users repost and retweet this so-called News in an effort to share information that they believe to be helpful – causing a chain reaction of sharing, perpetuating the belief that this false information and scams is fact.

Rumors about Hurricane Sandy began spreading like wildfire online before she even hit, and even more so in her aftermath. As the storm approached and made landfall in the tri-state area, there were countless hoax photos – including a shot of the infamous Statue of Liberty with ominous storm clouds behind her. According to Yahoo News, the now well-known picture is actually photoshopped – the storm clouds behind the Statue are real, but they are from a storm that hit Nebraska in 2004. With the amount of destruction and devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy throughout the entire tri-state area, including the boroughs of New York City, it is perplexing that anyone would create such a false image. This is the least harmful type of hoax – although it is presenting a false image as real, there is no scheme to obtain donations or monies under false pretenses, nor is the photo intentionally providing misinformation to Hurricane Victims who are in desperate need of relief.

On November 5th, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more commonly known as FEMA, created a new page on their website specifically to deal with the rumors pertaining to the assistance they are able to provide to victims of Hurricane Sandy and job openings working in NY and NJ. This was a necessary action on FEMA’s part – because the widespread use of social media, there have been countless rumors about relief efforts spreading lightning-fast – a problem that is only exacerbated by the massive cable and internet outages throughout New York and New Jersey. Access to reliable news sources has been sporadic or non-existent for many of those who are in the hardest hit areas, since so many now get their news updates online through computers or wireless devices,

Here are some of the biggest myths affecting Long Islanders that FEMA has debunked on its website to date:

  • FEMA is hiring cleanup crews for New York and New Jersey, paying a rate of $1,000 per week to workers. This is completely untrue – FEMA is asking for volunteers to assist in their Hurricane Sandy Recovery Efforts.
  • There has been an increase in traffic in New York & New Jersey because of the cleanup crews FEMA has hired, and brought to the state. According to FEMA, this is untrue.
  • FEMA will be providing “cash” debit cards to Hurricane Sandy victims. FEMA has said that this is untrue – and urges anyone who has had losses other than food items (including damage to your home, vehicle, or personal property) to apply online or call 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) for assistance.
  • Food Stamps (or alternatively a $300 food voucher) will be distributed to Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey. FEMA has said that this statement is untrue, and directs those who are in urgent need of food to find the nearest feeding station or food distribution center.
  • FEMA has run out of bottled water for distribution to Hurricane Sandy Victims. FEMA has stated that this is untrue, and that they are providing water to be distributed at food & water distribution centers and warming centers throughout New York & New Jersey.

In addition to these false claims spreading, there are also numerous scams circulating the internet filled with please from hurricane victims in need of assistance, so called “Storm Chaser” Contractors offering shoddy repairs to damaged homes, and numerous other fraudulent cries for help and offers of assistance. This is not uncommon after such a large disaster – you only need to think back to Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 for examples of con-artists taking advantage of catastrophe. These types of scams are often successful because they pull on our heart strings at an emotional time, and in addition to making contributions in a sincere effort to help, many empathetic individuals also pass this information along to friends and family via email, text, and social media. Because the issue is so rampant, the Better Business Bureau has created a page on their website solely dedicated to exposing the biggest scams circulating post-Sandy.

Here are some of the biggest Sandy Scams the BBB is warning Long Islanders to watch out for:

  • Charity  Scams – Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars of damage to the tri-state area, and although there are numerous legitimate charities on both the local and national level, there are also countless con-artists scamming do-gooders into making a donation under false pretenses. The BBB recommends that you are cautious before making a donation to a not for profit organization, and to confirm that the Charity is legitimate before making a donation. There are numerous pages on Facebook & Twitter allegedly set up by storm victims or “unofficial” charities that are asking for monetary donations – the BBB advises that you are cautious before donating to these non-registered groups and individuals, and recommends making a donation to a charity with an “on the ground” presence in your area. Here are some of the Relief Efforts here on Long Island that are legitimate, and in need of volunteers & contributions.
  • Social Media Scams – The BBB warns social media users to be wary of Individuals & Not for Profits asking for monetary donations (see above), but also warns to be cautious of clicking on links promising shocking video of the storm – this is usually a ploy, and you could end up with malware or spyware on your computer by clicking the link. If you’re looking for footage of Hurricane Sandy, turn to a reliable TV news source. You can also view pictures of the storm’s destruction around Long Island in our Hurricane Sandy Photo Gallery. Never install software on your computer from an unknown source.
  • “Storm Chaser” Contractors – The BBB advises you to be wary of any contractor going door to door to sell home repair to those effected by Hurricane Sandy. Often times, these scammers will offer you a price that is “too good to be true” because they have left over materials from a previous job. If you’ve had damage to your home, try and remain calm, and be sure to shop around for repair quotes. Visit LongIsland.com’s Home Improvement Section for a guide to reputable local contractors who can renovate and repair your home.
  • Phony Investment Opportunities – The BBB Reports that illegitimate investment opportunities often pop up after disaster strikes – and the case is no different with Sandy. Be cautious of any investment offers that claim to have profited from the disaster – these are often scams run by con-artists trying to profit off of the catastrophe.

Whenever disaster strikes, there is always going to be someone looking to turn a crisis situation into profitability, and unfortunately con-artists, false information, and rumors take away from those who truly need assistance the most – the real victims of Hurricane Sandy. So before you “Like” or Share a Page on Facebook, or Re-Tweet a post, be sure to verify that the source of the information is credible, and don’t help scammers perpetuate their false statements. Misinformation and Cons during a time of crisis only add to the frustration and confusion of those who are in the midst of it, and the best thing we can do to combat this problem of the digital age is to ensure that we take a critical look at any and all information that we pass along. 

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