Natural and man-made disasters — a deadly hurricane, a sudden winter storm, a destructive tornado, and a ruinous oil spill — upend people’s lives. Families and communities often need help coping in the aftermath.
Below are some pointers and consumer resources for the days and weeks following a disaster:
•Make use of federal and state resources — The U.S. President may declare a major disaster as President Biden did in Texas, unlocking emergency aid. This may include “grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.” Apply for assistance. Federal aid resources often begin at FEMA and www.disasterassistance.gov, and is also available at 1–800–621–3362.
•Watch out for scams — Disasters attract scammers. Be wary and cautious while rebuilding.
Home repair. Fly-by-night contractors are ready to take advantage of vulnerable disaster survivors. Consumers could end up paying for repairs that never get done while the contractor disappears with the money. Get several quotes from different contractors and research them. Hesitate before deciding on the cheapest contractor or a “friend” if they do not have a history of satisfied customers and good reviews. If the price and timing quoted seem too good to be true, they often are.
“With so many burst pipes (after a winter storm), it is important to make sure the plumber you are working with is licensed, said Ann Baddour, director of the Fair Financial Services Project at Texas Appleseed. “The Texas Board of Plumber Examiners offers some helpful tips.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has great advice on how to hire and deal with a contractor, including: Get a written contract. Don’t pay cash. Try to limit your down payment. Try to make payments during the project contingent upon completion of defined amounts of work.
Take these steps to protect yourself before any work is done. Funds already spent to pay for the service will likely not be recovered from a contractor who did not do any work or performed poor repairs.
Phone scams — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants consumers to know that “government disaster assistance agencies do not call or text asking for financial account information, and that there is no fee required to apply for or get disaster assistance from FEMA or the Small Business Administration. Anyone claiming to be a federal official who asks for money is an imposter.”
Report suspected scams to government agencies, including the FTC, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), FCC, and your state’s attorney general office.
•Make your insurance work for you — Insurance companies responding to millions of claims may result in delays or unreasonable denials of coverage. Be vigilant. Make sure they act promptly. Keep track of your post-disaster expenses and receipts. Review your insurance coverage and know how it pays for loss, e.g. replacement or market value of lost items. For homeowners, the CFPB suggests checking with your insurance company and mortgage lender or servicer about how and when insurance funds will be distributed.
“Remember to document everything with records and through photos,” Baddour said. “You can also negotiate with your insurance company if you think they are not compensating you enough for the damage covered by your policy.” The Texas Office of Public Insurance Council offers important resources and help for Texans dealing with insurance providers. Baddour suggests this resource to help residents build an inventory of the damage to their homes, and some other tips.
•Report price gouging — In a state of emergency, shady businesses often drive up the prices of everyday necessities To fight back against price gouging, report, report, report. Report it to your state’s attorney general office, report it to the Better Business Bureau, report it to your friends on social media.
•Dealing with utility bills — During and after Texas’ winter storm, millions lost power , but most may see extremely high utility bills. Families need more consumer protections like these to protect keep utilities affordable. In the meantime, consumers should turn to their local representatives and their state’s public utility commission to seek assistance against skyrocketing bills and other abuses. The Texas Public Utility Commission has issued temporary protections while high utility bills are being investigated.
•Protect your finances — The CFPB maintains resources on how consumers can protect their finances while recovering from disasters and emergencies. The agency suggests contacting your mortgage servicer, credit card companies, and other lenders to make them aware of the situation and seek accommodations.
•Seek legal assistance — Coping with the fallout of a disaster is not only stressful, it may trigger legal issues. Victims of scams, consumers in disputes with insurance companies, lenders, home-repair contractors, and other disaster-related harms may need help from attorneys.
More than 60 million Americans qualify for free legal aid due to their income status. Qualified consumers can look for free legal aid here. According to the Legal Services Corporation, on just housing issues alone, legal aid attorneys help disaster victims to “secure temporary housing, file insurance claims, apply for home repair assistance, negotiate with landlords to make necessary repairs to damaged homes, and protect renters from illegal evictions.”
There are other ways to find a consumer attorney, such as through the NACA directory.
Websites to know -
Consumers Ascending thanks Ann Baddour, director of the Fair Financial Services Project at Texas Appleseed and Carla L. Sanchez-Adams, Managing Attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. for their help with assembling these tips and resources.