Harvey charities: What to look for

(Image: Diocese of Knoxville)

via Disaster charities do’s and don’ts, clarionledger.com

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With Hurricane Harvey’s devastating meander through south Texas and Louisiana over the past few days, the nation’s attention has been transfixed.

For Mississippians who remember Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, seeing the destruction from Harvey has opened a lot of old memories. It has also created an outpouring of sympathy and desire to help ease the suffering, as many of us remember what it feels like to lose everything to rampaging wind and water.

As I’ve watched news coverage, I was taken back to a time when endless lines of tractor-trailer rigs full of supplies were arriving at staging centers and shelters, providing much-needed aid and assistance. During the next few days, donations poured in from around the globe, and we Mississippians will remain forever grateful for the helping hands that lifted us up during a time of great need. The disaster showed humanity at its finest. Today, aid is pouring in once again, but this time to help our neighbors in Texas and Louisiana.

While media accounts are full of good will and people demonstrating a selfless and often-heroic dedication to helping their fellow man, unfortunately there are people who would seek to profit. Sometimes, they gouge prices for essential items. Other times they prey on disaster victims with home-repair scams, sell flood-damaged cars without disclosing that fact, or set up fake charities that only line the pockets of scammers. Since Mississippi is perennially at or near the top of the list of most-generous states, and many of us are eager to pay forward the generosity we’ve received, it’s advisable to act with caution.When making a decision about where to send a donation, carefully consider the organization you’re considering, and ask these questions:

When making a decision about where to send a donation, carefully consider the organization you’re considering, and ask these questions:

Is it legitimate? Many “nonprofit” organizations spring up overnight, and might call you with names similar to ones you know. But these “sound-alike” operations are really just trying to cash in on the disaster. If you get a call from a charity, be careful and request information if you’re not familiar with them. (Keep in mind that donations will be needed for months or even years to come, so there shouldn’t be a rush.) There are several ways to research charities online, including the Mississippi secretary of state’s officeBBB Wise Giving Alliance (give.org); Charity NavigatorCharity Watch and Guidestar.

Is it capable? Just because an organization is started by people with good hearts and the right intentions doesn’t mean they can actually do the job. Anybody can set up a charity and collect donations, and these are often well-meaning. But there’s a lot more to running an organization than just providing services “on the ground.” Effective disaster relief means understanding the need, having access to (and contacts with) local people to help coordinate relief and managing the work of volunteers. Look for organizations with an established track record in disasters.

Is it a good steward? Many organizations are already involved in the Harvey relief effort, and more will be in the days to come. A lot of money is being donated. But organizations should be careful to be good stewards of your money. It an organization is going to take 60 cents out of every dollar you spend to pay for expenses to run the operation, it means that only 40 cents of every dollar is going directly to the cause you want it to help. Donors should always ask this question, but keep in mind that zero “overhead” (for example, a claim that 100 percent of funds go to help flooded families) is difficult to maintain. Instead, look for a reasonable level of expenses.

Is it appropriate? After every hurricane, charities are often inundated with donated clothing and household items. These often overwhelm local organizations, and most end up in landfills. So, instead of donating your ‘70s disco wardrobe, consider donating money instead. And if you’re dead-set on collecting items, consider having a garage sale of the items, then donating the proceeds.

Finally, if you’re considering donating your time and effort, that’s wonderful. But don’t just throw a chainsaw in the truck and head to Texas. Contact a local church or relief organization. This will not only help ensure you’ll have meaningful work to do, it will help reduce the strain on an already-overwhelmed relief effort.

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Flood-damaged cars put back on market

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via Flood-damaged cars put back on market, clarionledger.com

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As the region cleans up after the catastrophic flooding of the past few weeks, there are going to be lots of folks looking to sell their flood-damaged cars. It happens every time there’s a major flood, and it often catches people off-guard. Usually, flooded cars often hit the market within days.

Vehicles in the path of floodwaters can have severe damage that is not always apparent or repairable. As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina here in Mississippi, flooded cars can be a big problem for unsuspecting buyers.

After insurance claims are settled, some cars are put back into the market. Unfortunately, it can be hard to detect a flood-damaged car. Unscrupulous owners and salesmen will often go to great lengths to hide flood damage. Legally and ethically, owners of flooded cars should disclose whether the vehicle has been in a flood, crash or other disaster. But unscrupulous sellers don’t always comply with the law, or care about ethics when there’s money to be made.

Just because a vehicle looks fine after being refurbished doesn’t mean it’s safe. Often, the floodwater has permanently damaged key components vital to operation and safety (such as the electrical system or brakes). While the vehicle may function fine at first, buyers can be on the hook for expensive repairs years later, with no recourse or warranties from the seller. And flooding can weaken the vehicle’s safety system through rust and corrosion, as well, making the vehicle unsafe to drive.

If you’re in the market for a vehicle, it’s a good idea to be extra careful of private-sale deals on vehicles. And running a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) check on Carfax, AutoCheck or another title-checking service may reveal whether the vehicle has been marked as salvage (but may not help if the title has been “washed” illegally). Any time you get a used vehicle, take it to a local mechanic you trust so they can check it out thoroughly.

There are a few things to look for which may signify the vehicle has been in a flood. Autotrader.com sent me these helpful tips:

  • Check under the vehicle’s carpets or floor covering for mud or rust, and don’t forget the trunk. Often, hurried cleanups will ignore damaged areas covered by carpeting.
  • Take a whiff of the carpets. A mildew-like smell could be a sign of trouble.
  • Check for mud and debris in hard-to-reach areas, and on the underside of panels and brackets; they may have been missed during the cleaning process.
  • Look for rust on the heads of any exposed screws under the hood, around the doors or in the trunk.

If you find out you’ve bought a flood-damaged vehicle that wasn’t disclosed as such, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi attorney general’s office at 1-800-281-4418.

Should you buy earthquake insurance?

via Should you buy earthquake insurance? on Clarionledger.com

PDF: Should you purchase earthquake insurance

It was likely a cool, quiet night on Dec. 16, 1811. Residents sleeping soundly in their beds throughout the Mississippi River basin were awakened by a sudden, sustained jolt. They didn’t know it at the time, but a giant crack in the earth miles below their beds had suddenly roared back to life after lying dormant for centuries.

As the New Madrid fault shifted over the next few months, the resulting earthquakes and aftershocks sent tsunamis roaring up and down the Mississippi River, split the earth in many places and changed the landscape forever. The reported loss of life was minimal, thanks to the sparse population at the time. But it was a reminder of nature’s power and man’s helplessness in the face of it.

If the same series of earthquakes were to happen today, however, the results would be much different. The area is now heavily populated, with cities and towns having been built throughout the lower Mississippi region. Cities like St. Louis and Memphis would likely be hit hard. And the potential loss of life could dwarf any natural disaster the nation has ever faced.

Here in Mississippi, experts say, we could expect significant damage — even from a more modest quake. Some estimates have placed the potential damage in Mississippi at $9.5 billion from an earthquake of 7.7 magnitude, resulting in moderate-to-total damage to more than 45,000 buildings.

Some residents of central Mississippi got a couple of reminders over the past couple of months, as three small earthquakes jolted residents in Madison County. These were minor quakes that would hardly merit attention in quake-prone areas such as the West Coast, but they obviously got a lot of people thinking about earthquake insurance; many agents’ phones were ringing the next morning.

Most homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover movement of the earth. Earthquake insurance is an add-on, or endorsement, to a standard homeowner’s policy. It’s different from flood insurance, which is a policy purchased separately through a program called the National Flood Insurance Program. (Statistically, Mississippians are more likely to be affected by floods than any other disaster, so it’s a good idea to consider flood coverage.)

But with the likelihood of an earthquake affecting Mississippians rising with the passage of time, Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney urges homeowners to consider earthquake insurance as part of their total coverage.

“The more prepared you are helps save lives and property,” he said. “Being prepared can help prevent unpleasant insurance surprises should disaster strike, and one of the first steps of preparedness is to talk to your agent for a policy review to make sure you have the proper coverage.”

Here are a few things to think about as you speak with your agent:

Consider the potential damage. If your home is made of brick, wood-frame with a crawl space or has more than one story, damage from a quake is more likely.

Plan ahead. Many companies won’t sell new earthquake insurance policies for 30-60 days after a quake because of the expectation of aftershocks.

Read the fine print. Earthquake policies typically don’t cover damage to your lot or land, such as sinkholes, or damage to vehicles or external damage caused by water, and some policies don’t cover replacement of masonry veneers such as brick or stucco.

Decide how much coverage you need. Your agent can walk you through the coverage options for the structure and contents. The cost will vary depending on a number of factors, and there are limits of coverage on most policies. Be sure you have enough coverage not only to reimburse the mortgage lender, but also to make repairs.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has produced a brochure called A Consumers’ Guide to Earthquake Insurance, located at http://bit.ly/1HHk3FU. It has a lot of great advice to help you think through your options.

Hood warns potential price gougers

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood today reminded residents and business owners that price gouging is illegal during a state of emergency, and gouging can result in fines and up to five years’ jail time for each count.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant issued a State of Emergency for this week’s icy storms and flooding.

With the recent winter storms, some items have become scarce, and prices are rising. But Hood warned against taking advantage of the situation to overcharge customers. “The law says that ‘the value received for all goods and services sold within the designated emergency impact area shall not exceed the prices ordinarily charged for comparable goods or services in the same market area at or immediately before the declaration of a state of emergency or local emergency,’ Hood’s office said in a news release. “However, the value received may include: any expenses, the cost of the goods and services which are necessarily incurred in procuring such goods and services during a state of emergency or local emergency.”

Consumers should be aware that a state of emergency declaration “does not necessarily give law enforcement the means to enforce and investigate reports of price gouging.  The Governor must include specific language in the declaration in order to ‘activate’ the price gouging statute.” That language wasn’t included with the declaration.

What constitutes price gouging is sometimes murky, however; often businesses are allowed to cover the rising costs of items bought during the emergency, but raising prices on existing inventory isn’t allowed. “Businesses can raise their prices in order to recover actual expenditures.  In other words, if it costs them more to provide an item to the public, they can pass that expense along to the consumer.  In the case of gas station owners, they cannot charge more for their fuel already in the ground before the emergency only on new truck loads if it costs them more to bring the product in.”

If you think prices are being gouged, Hood suggests that you “take a photo, including date and time stamp, of price signs while at the business.” He did say that the Governor’s Office could amend existing declarations to include the price gouging statute.

To report price gouging claims, call the AG’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-281-4418, or visit http://agjimhood.com.

Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 2/12/14.)

Typhoon Haiyan: give, but give smartly

The Federal Trade Commission warned Americans yesterday to be careful when considering how to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. This is just one of many agencies and organizations seeking to help maximize the value of donations and minimize fraud and ineffectiveness.

Having seen many disaster operations firsthand and trying to help educate donors, there are a few things I’ve learned:

First, remember that while disasters may tug on your heartstrings, there a predators out there, seeking to take advantage of the legendary generosity of Americans. Mississippians, being the most generous Americans per capita year after year, are not immune. So remember:

* Donate to charities you know and trust. Be alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight.
* Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, for whom they work, and what percentage of your donation goes to the charity and to the fundraiser. “If you don’t get a clear answer — or if you don’t like the answer you get — consider donating to a different organization,” notes the FTC.
* Keep in mind that while it may seem like a good idea to clean out your closet to donate used stuff, such things often hamper operations. Every major disaster has spawned stories of truckloads of used clothes being buried in landfills or sitting for months in warehouses, unused. Give cash instead.
* While I remember truckload after truckload of needed items coming to Mississippi on trucks after Hurricane Katrina, it is a lot easier to give relevant donations when you’re in the U.S., with its advanced infrastructure. But, as we discovered after the Haiti earthquake, local governments in an under-developed country can be easily overwhelmed by well-meant shipments of goods. Try to support local organizations that are already established in The Philippines.
* While donating small amounts via texting is fast and easy, be sure to find out what it actually costs — both for you and the charity. PC World published some helpful tips at http://www.pcworld.com/article/197698/donating_by_text_message.htm.
* Donors have access to lots of information on charities. Mississippi consumers can go to the Secretary of State’s office at sos.ms.gov. Another excellent resource is the BBB Wise Giving Alliance at http://www.give.org.

(Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 11/14/2013).

Attorney General, Contractor Board warn bad contractors

via Attorney General, Contractor Board warn bad contractors | Consumer Watch, clarionledger.com, 4/22/2013

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and the Mississippi State Board of Contractors today issued a warning to would-be unscrupulous contractors: shoddy work, ripping off consumers and bad practices will be met with zero tolerance.

“Mississippi has been hit hard by storms in 2013, everything from tornadoes to hail storms, causing an increase in out-of-state contractors moving to the state looking for work,” Hood said in a joint news release. “Many of these contractors are unlicensed or fraudulent.”

You may recall that, after the hailstorms a few weeks ago, agencies issued similar advice. But with the new hard line, officials hope to present a united front as we are still dealing with spring storms and hurricane season is around the corner.

“We caution storm victims not to make a bad situation worse by hiring the first contractor who comes along,” said Stephanie Sills Lee, Executive Director for the MSBOC. “Take your time and protect yourself against con artists who will take your money and run or from incompetent contractors who will perform shoddy work.”

A conviction for Home Repair Fraud could result in up to ten years behind bars, notes the joint release, adding, “The MSAGO and the MSBOC both intend to prosecute, to the fullest extent of the law, anyone caught committing home repair fraud.”

“There are a lot of honest contractors out there, but a disaster really brings out the crooks trying to take advantage of those already in a vulnerable position,” said Hood. “That’s why we are joining forces with the Board of Contractors to send the message that we are united in our fight against crooked contractors.”

Some tips recommended by both agencies to protect yourself from crooked contractors:

Hire only licensed and bonded contractors. Ask to see the license and verify the bond.
Use Mississippi contractors if possible.
Verify the contractor’s license by checking online at http://www.msboc.us
Be wary of supposed contractors who come to your home soliciting business. Most reputable contractors will be busy and won’t need to solicit business.
Always get more than one estimate. Three bids are recommended.
Request references and talk with those references.
Put all your terms in writing. A copy of a “model contract” can be found at http://www.agjimhood.com
As a backup, videotape the discussion with the contractor concerning the terms of the transaction/contract.

“Following recent storms, we have had our disaster response teams out pushing information and following up on complaints,” Lee said. “We hope by joining forces with the Attorney General’s Office that we can keep some storm-damaged residents from being victimized by an unscrupulous contractor.”

Consumers can check a contractor’s qualifications or file a complaint with the MSBOC by calling 1-800-880-6161 or by visiting http://www.msboc.us. Consumers can file a complaint with the MSAGO by calling 1-800-281-4418 or by visitingwww.agjimhood.com. A copy of the Attorney General’s “Consumer Tips for Storm Victims” can also be downloaded at www.agjimhood.com. More resources and tips can be found on both agency’s websites.