Tropical Storm Fred: Here are tips to help consumers dealing with hurricanes, other storms

Here's advice to keep yourself, your home, you pets and your finances safe

Tropical Storm Fred made landfall this afternoon at Cape San Blas, Fla., near Panama City. As with most tropical storms and hurricanes, the biggest threats are heavy rain and flooding. 

Here are some tips to help consumers protect themselves from the storm and possible opportunists, bad deals and con-artists:

  • Take photos: Here’s a good idea for all homeowners anytime, but especially those in the path of a storm: Take photos and videos of your home and belongings, if you can do it safely, so you can better document any losses.  

  • Protect your pets: People forced to evacuate need to know if hotels or shelters will take their pets. Pets Welcome is a good resource for that information for shelters and hotels. Additionally, many hotels relax their pet policies and waive pet fees during a natural disaster. Call ahead to find out. If people do have to leave their pets behind, PETA recommends leaving at least 10 days’ worth of food and water. Bring Fido offers these additional tips to keep your dog safe during a hurricane or other emergency.

  • Watch out for fraud and scams: After past disasters, con artists have posed as federal employees, insurance agents and housing inspectors to steal information and money. Fake flood robocalls have promised victims money for simple information. People can take several steps to protect themselves: Ask for appropriate identification. Don’t give out personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank account information, policy numbers or anything else to someone you didn’t contact independently. Remember FEMA doesn’t charge anyone to submit an application. Don’t give anyone a large deposit or down payment before they provide their goods or services. And don’t pay in cash or with a wire transfer or gift card.

  • Be on guard for price gouging: Florida, Louisiana and 35 other states have anti-price gouging laws that protect consumers from prices that are inflated after an emergency is declared. If a business is hiking prices for gas, water, building supplies, food, ice or other needs, people should report it to their state attorney general’s office immediately. Here are links to the AG offices in Florida and Louisiana

  • Make sure your food is safe: Hurricanes and tropical storms carry a lot of dangerous bacteria that can contaminate food or food preparation materials. The basic rule is if food has touched the flood waters, even if it’s still in the packaging, it should be thrown out. Discard any containers with visible damage. Some undamaged food may be salvageable, if it didn’t require refrigeration. Use bottled water until local authorities have confirmed the local water supply is safe. And completely disinfect all food preparation surfaces, utensils, baby bottles, cutting boards, etc.

  • Watch out for identity theft: Identity theft can compound your problems after a hurricane. Storm victims are particularly vulnerable. U.S. law allows anyone to freeze their credit files at no cost. People can find out more here about how to protect themselves from identity theft. 

  • Avoid scammers posing as charities: Con-artists will try to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune and people’s big hearts by soliciting donations that won’t really go to help disaster victims after all. Check out this guide from the Federal Trade Commission on donating wisely and avoiding ripoffs. 

  • Get estimates: If possible, get multiple estimates from contractors to help you file a claim that will be accurate when it’s time to pay the bill. 

  • File claims quickly: Report your claim as soon as possible because insurance companies generally process claims first come, first served, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Also, insurers should not raise your rate for filing a hurricane claim or fail to renew your policy for filing one, CFA said. Make detailed lists of losses, including living expenses and debris removal, and keep all receipts.

  • Vet contractors: Homeowners should use only licensed contractors with verifiable references to work on their property. When interviewing contractors, homeowners should ask for proof of their insurance and bonding, and about their past experience repairing damage from flooding or other disasters and their mold remediation practices. Each state has a Board of Contractors that offers a full list of licensed contractors. Homeowners can also get advice from FEMA.