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By Thomas Goldsmith

An Eastern North Carolina landowner facing trees downed by Hurricane Florence could be tempted to hire a passing crew of workmen to get the limbs removed, paying cash on the barrelhead.

And a family of warmhearted Tar Heels who made it safe through the hurricane could decide to pitch in on the spot for a GoFundMe site to help those with tougher luck.

Sorry, but these folks shouldn’t act so fast, state officials say.

While effects of catastrophic Florence can still be felt from the Crystal Coast to Clay County, unscrupulous minds are already working on ways to profit off people’s misfortunes and their giving spirits. That’s the wisdom from North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and NC Attorney General Josh Stein, who have been spreading the word this week about fake charities, price gouging and unscrupulous contractors.

Older people and those with disabilities may be particularly at the mercy of scam artists who seek a vulnerable home. The storm’s tumult and accompanying damage can throw even normally sharp-eyed people off their games.

“If an older person has damage to their house and they aren’t even in a position to assess it, they should reach a church group or someone you trust to help assess the damage,” Marshall said in a phone interview Monday.

650 gouging complaints

Stein’s office said Tuesday that the state had notched about 650 complaints about price gouging, mostly in the sale of gas and lodging. The complaints have resulted in investigations into some gas stations in Eastern North Carolina, Stein said.

Think you were cheated? Report it to the Attorney General’s office.

Phone: 1-877-5-NO-SCAM
Or you can file a written complaint with the AG’s office and they will work to resolve it.

“Unfortunately, there are some out there who will take advantage of a natural disaster to make a quick buck,” Stein said during a Sunday press conference. “When the governor declared the state emergency, that triggered our state’s price gouging law. So it is in effect, and we are actively enforcing it.”

The law will remain in force for 45 days unless extended by Gov. Roy Cooper. Both Stein and Marshall are cautioning consumers to be wary of criminals posing as representatives of charitable agencies. Just as North Carolina repeatedly cautions people not to drive into standing water, the state keeps warning citizens to be wary of post-hurricane scam artists because the same bad scenarios keep on coming.

“I feel very comfortable that they will be out there, because they always are after every disaster,” Marshall said.

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Social media fundraising should be considered with the same caution as pitches by mail, email or phone, Marshall said. Even GoFundMe itself offers cautionary notes for givers: make sure the collecting is set up so that the money gets to the place it’s needed.

“People have to be really leery when someone starts passing around a social media plea,” Marshall said. “It could the biggest scam you’ve ever encountered. You ought to go to the people who have gotten the job done in the past.”

“Be very careful”

Similarly, Stein said, people who need home repairs should seek out trusted individuals or companies, those established as doing quality work.

“People are going to need to get their lives back to have to fix their homes, they’re going to have to remove trees from their land,” Stein said.

“Be very careful who you do business with. Make sure that they are licensed; make sure they have insurance. When you start a business relationship, get quotes from more than one vendor so you can compare.

“Whatever they promise you, make sure it’s in writing the work they’re going to do, the time in which they’re going to do it and materials they’re going to use.”

Both elected officials emphasized that contractors shouldn’t receive full payment until the work is all done. And homeowners can always turn down the roving work crew that claims to be in the neighborhood by chance.

“You can say thanks, but no thanks,” Marshall said. “Paying up front, that’s a bad, bad thing.”

How can I be sure?

Quickly established online solicitation campaigns, whether outright scams or sloppily run by well-intentioned people, aren’t the best destination for people’s charity cash, says Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. The Secretary of State’s office maintains a “smart donor checklist” to help givers separate legitimate charities from those lacking legal status.

GoFundMe the online fund-raiser, offers a list of question potential donors should be able to answer about a charitable pitch:
“How is the campaign organizer related to the intended recipient of the donations?
“What is the purpose of the campaign and how will the funds be used?
“Are direct family and friends making donations and leaving supportive comments?
“Is the intended recipient in control of the withdrawals? If not, is there a clear path for the funds to reach them?”
— GoFundMe.com

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...