Natural disasters are not uncommon in the United States. Already this year, massive tornadoes caused untold destruction in Oklahoma and across the Midwest, and wildfires have destroyed many homes in Colorado.
Although there are charities and government programs that focus on helping victims of natural disasters recover financially, the confusion of such catastrophic events can leave room for identity theft scams.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit agency dedicated to stopping identity theft, thieves know victims of disasters are less likely to have time to protect themselves.
However, victims of natural disasters can avoid falling prey to identity thieves by following several rules about personal and identifying information:
Make a plan to protect important documents. Make copies of personal identifying documents like Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, wedding certificates, and health insurance cards, and store them outside the home in a safe deposit box. Also, keep copies of your credit and debit information in a safe place. This way, even if your home is destroyed or left vulnerable to looters, the information will be locked away.
Stop your mail. Mail often contains important identifying information, and leaving such information in the mailbox for any extended amount of time makes it vulnerable to thieves. If a disaster causes you to be away from your home for an extended period of time—such as during cleanup or repairs—ask to pick up your mail at a post office until you can return.
Protect your virtual assets. Only use secure, password-protected Internet connections to check bank accounts, email, or other potentially sensitive websites.
Check your credit report as soon as possible after a disaster. A credit report will show any unusual activity related to finances. You can also add a security alert to your credit report so you’ll know immediately if something unusual happens long after the disaster.
Be careful when giving out your personal information in order to collect relief funds. Many organizations do distribute relief funds after disasters, and some may require you to give them your identifying information, such as Social Security numbers or banking information. Disaster victims should only speak to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and known charity groups. The Better Business Bureau also keeps a list of known and respected relief organizations.
Don’t give your personal information to anyone who solicits contributions to any disaster relief fund. According to the National Center for Disaster Fraud, a part of the Federal Department of Justice that investigates instances of fraud associated with major disasters, legitimate organizations generally don’t send unsolicited emails or pressure people into donating after a disaster. Organizations also won’t require more identifying information than is necessary to process a donation. Those hoping to help disaster victims should carefully research organizations before donating and should be wary of those seeming to ask for unnecessary identifying information.
Report suspected instances of identity theft immediately. People who believe they may have been victims of fraud related to a natural disaster should contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud by phone at 866-720-5721, by fax at 225-334-4707, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ilyce Glink is the author of ten books, including the bestselling 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. Her nationally syndicated column, “Real Estate Matters,” appears in more than 125 newspapers and Websites, and her online “Ask Ilyce” columns are read by hundreds of thousands of people every month. She is a top-rated radio host on WSB Radio in Atlanta, the Home Equity blogger at CBS MoneyWatch.com, host of the Internet program “Expert Real Estate Tips,” managing editor of the Equifax Personal Finance Blog, and publisher of ThinkGlink.com.
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