FEMA cautions Sevier County residents to protect themselves from post-disaster scam artists


GATLINBURG (WATE) – In the wake of a disaster, it’s common to see the generous side of human nature, but unfortunately, there are also people who may try to take advantage of victims during a stressful time.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is warning Sevier County residents not to be a victim of the fires in Sevier County twice. FEMA officials are cautioning residents about common scams including phony, unscrupulous building contractors and other scam artists that often take advantage of people during a disaster.

“Disasters often bring out the best and worst in people,” said FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Moore. “We strongly recommend that those who are rebuilding their homes and lives take a few simple steps to make sure they’re dealing with a reputable person.”Related:Avoiding shady contractors as Gatlinburg rebuilds

FEMA said some scam artists may promise to provide a disaster grant in return for large cash deposits or advance payments in full. They say never agree to pay any amount of money for a disaster grant.

“It is important to know that federal and state workers do not solicit or accept money. FEMA and SBA never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications. If ever in doubt, do not give out personal information and report people claiming to be government workers to local police,” said FEMA in a statement.

The first and best defense, according to FEMA, is to know the most common post-disaster fraud practices:

Phony housing inspectors: If a home’s damage is visible from the street, the homeowner may be especially vulnerable to the phony housing inspector who claims to represent FEMA or the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

What to do to help protect yourself?

  • Ask to see the inspector’s identification badge. All federal employees and contractors carry official, laminated photo identification. A FEMA or SBA shirt or jacket is not proof of someone’s affiliation with the government.
  • Don’t give bank account numbers to an inspector claiming to be affiliated with the federal government. FEMA inspectors never require banking information.
  • Don’t believe anyone that says they are endorsed by FEMA. FEMA does not endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs. FEMA contracts with inspectors to verify losses.

Fraudulent building contractors: Damage visible from the street also can bring out scam contractors who visit your home offering to begin work immediately, usually for an upfront payment. Most legitimate contractors will have more work than they can handle after a disaster and will provide you a written estimate for completion.

When you hire a contractor:

  • Use licensed local contractors backed by reliable references when possible. Get a written estimate from at least three contractors, including the cost of labor and materials, and read the fine print.
  • Demand that contractors carry general liability insurance and workers’ compensation. If they don’t, you may be liable for accidents that occur on your property.Bogus pleas for post-disaster donations: Understand that disaster aid solicitations may arrive by phone, email, letter or face-to-face visits. You can ensure the solicitation is legitimate if you:
  • Ask for the charity’s exact name, street address, phone number, and web address, then phone the charity directly and confirm that the person asking for funds is an employee or volunteer.
  • Think before you give cash — instead, pay by check made out to the charity in case you must stop funds later.
  • Request a receipt with the charity’s name, street address, phone number and web address (if applicable). Legitimate nonprofit agencies routinely provide receipts for tax purposes.

Fake offers of state or federal aid:

  • If someone claiming to be from FEMA or the state visits, calls or emails asking for your Social Security number, bank account number or other sensitive information, be cautious. Don’t provide any personal information unless you made the initial call.
  • Do not trust any phone or in-person solicitor who promises to speed up the insurance, disaster assistance or building permit process.

How to receive help: 

The agency says you should only provide your Social Security number and banking information to them when registering for FEMA assistance; online at www.disasterassistance.gov; via smart phone at m.fema.gov; by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Persons who have a speech disability or hearing loss and use TTY should call 1-800-462-7585 directly; for those who use 711 or Video Relay Service (VRS), call 1-800-621-3362. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time) seven days a week until further notice; multilingual operators are available.

Register with the SBA online at its secure site: https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela; call 1-800-659-2955 or TTY 1-800-877-8339; or visit one of the two Registration Centers. Their locations are:

  • Gatlinburg Community Center, 159 Proffitt Road in Gatlinburg
  • Pigeon Forge Factory Outlet mall, 2850 Parkway, Suite 5 in Pigeon Forge

For more information on SBA disaster assistance, go to www.sba.gov.

If you suspect someone is perpetrating fraud, call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721. Disaster survivors who have any questions can call FEMA’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-621-3362.

How to know if you are ineligible for assistance: 

There are many reasons someone can become ineligible for FEMA disaster assistance: lack of verification of occupancy of the damaged property, proof of identity, no documentation of damage or has coverage by insurance policy.

Application status can be checked at DisasterAssistance.gov.

If a person is denied insurance coverage, they can contact FEMA for their case to be reviewed again.

A letter will be given if a person is ineligible. There will be a code with the explanation. If the explanation is not clear, you can contact the FEMA helpline, 1-800-621-3362. Sevier County applicants have 60 days from the date on the decision letter to file an appeal over ineligibility or the grant amount.

In an appeal, survivors must include their full name, FEMA registration number, Disaster number (4293), address of pre-disaster primary residence, current phone number and address and documentation supporting reasons for the appeal. FEMA says applicants should include the following signed statement: “I hereby declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.” Applicants can also send a copy of a state-issued ID card or a notarized letter.

Letters can be sent to:

  • Mail: FEMA, National Process Service Center, P.O. Box 10055, Hyattsville, MD 20782-7055
  • Fax: 800-827-8112, Attention: FEMA

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