AG Warns of Scams Related to Earthquake and Tsunami Relief

Consumers cautioned about possible scams linked to earthquake & tsunami relief in Japan, along with local flood-related problems

HARRISBURG – Acting Attorney General Bill Ryan urged consumers to be watchful for possible financial scams and questionable charitable pleas linked to last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan; along with potential problems related to localized flooding that recently occurred in some Pennsylvania communities.

“Scam artists and con-men often use natural disasters to take advantage of well-meaning people who simply want to help victims,” Ryan said.  “Consumers should also be watchful for scams and report suspicious solicitations to help ensure that much-needed assistance actually helps people who are in need.”

Ryan said one of the most common topics for consumer complaints in these situations is fraudulent disaster-related fundraising efforts.

“A few minutes spent researching various relief organizations can help you avoid scams and also make certain that your charitable contribution will actually be helping the victims of the earthquake in Japan, or other catastrophic events,” Ryan said.  “Also, be watchful for look-alike or sound-alike organizations or websites created by scam artists who are hoping to fool unsuspecting consumers.”

Ryan urged consumers to review the following tips if they are considering making a contribution to a disaster-relief agency:

  • Verify that a charity is registered in PA before making a contribution.
  • Ask for details about how funds will be spent (legitimate charities will tell you what percentage of your gift will go toward community services, operating expenses or fundraising).
  • Write checks directly to the charity, rather than giving cash.
  • Watch for fictitious organizations or websites created by scam artists that are designed to sound or look similar to legitimate relief agencies.
  • Be wary of high-pressure tactics and door-to-door collections.
  • If you are making a contribution electronically, be certain that you are using a secure Internet site.
  • Be cautious of “SPAM” email messages that ask you to click on links, open files or download photos (these could contain computer viruses).
  • Be skeptical of email messages or posts on social networking sites from people claiming to be foreign officials or surviving victims asking for electronic donations.

Consumers with questions or problems related to disaster-related fundraising scams can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or file an online complaint.

Ryan also noted that Pennsylvania residents may be vulnerable to scams in their own communities, as they assess the damage done by recent flooding.

“Shoddy contractors who take money but perform no work are often a problem after severe storms,” Ryan said. “Consumers in need of home repairs should carefully evaluate the businesses they hire and understand their rights regarding home improvement contracts.”

Ryan explained that Pennsylvania’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act requires written contracts for all projects over $500, including specific information about any project:

  • The total price for a project.
  • A start date and end date.
  • Details about the materials being used.
  • An explanation of a consumer’s three-day right to cancel a contract.

Additionally, Ryan said the law limits any up-front payments to no more than one-third of the total price of the project (excluding any specially-ordered materials).

All home improvement contractors are required to register with the Attorney General’s Office and must include their registration number on all contracts, estimates and advertisements.  Consumers can verify a contractor’s registration by using the “Home Improvement Consumer Information” section of the Attorney General’s website or by calling 1-888-520-6680.

“To date, more than 77,000 home improvement businesses have registered with the Attorney General’s Office,” Ryan said. “We encourage homeowners to use this registration system as a tool to help select a contractor suited for their project.”

Ryan urged consumers to take additional steps to protect themselves from con artists or scams, including:

  • Get multiple estimates.
  • Check references for recent projects (ask other consumers if they were happy with the work that was performed and if there were any problems).
  • Do not feel pressured by “special offers” or deals on “left over” materials.
  • Be wary of contractors who approach you with unsolicited offers or stories of “just being in the neighborhood.”

Consumers with questions or problems related to home improvement scams can contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or file an online complaint.

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