PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — From winter ice storms assisted by rolling power outages, to coastal flooding and unprecedented wildfires, Oregon has experienced a disturbing increase in natural disasters in the last year and a half.
And as a growing number of Oregonians fall victim to these incidents, the potential for disaster-related scams and fraud also rises.
“I can not imagine fleeing my home in fear of a wildfire or another natural disaster,” Ellen Klem, director of Consumer Outreach and Education for the Oregon Attorney General’s Office, told KOIN 6 News. “Decisions at that time would be very challenging and I fear I would probably make the wrong one.”
To help arm Oregonians against a disaster-related scam or fraud, the Oregon Department of Justice, the Department of Consumer and Business Services, and the Construction Contractors Board jointly released a Natural Disaster Resource Guide for Oregonians.
“This is such a devastating time in the lives of these individuals,” Klem explained. “So providing them with a booklet with key information is critical. It’s one step we could take collectively to make sure Oregonians stay safe and don’t become victims of a fraud following their victimization of a disaster.”
The 10-page booklet was released this September in conjunction with National Disaster Preparedness Month. The guide covers how to spot and avoid disaster-related scams, working with insurance companies, hiring contractors to rebuild, and how to get legal help if victimized.
Data for how many disaster-related scams have been reported to the Oregon Attorney General’s office and other agencies are incomplete since most complaints are not classified by their cause.
However, Klem told KOIN 6 News that there is often an increase in complaints following a disaster and that many reports go unfiled, adding, “Often people don’t report because they either feel embarrassed that they have been taken advantage of or they simply aren’t aware that they have been victimized.”
Spotting a scam can be difficult as disaster-related fraud can take on many forms. In a statement, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said, “…They could be unlicensed contractors looking for jobs, or price gouging vendors of bottled water or cleaning products. Any way you look at it, it can feel overwhelming to navigate when your home and community have been damaged.”
In the wake of the 2020 wildfires, evacuees were forced to pay significantly high prices in hotel rooms, prompting the DOJ to step in and assist in cases of price gouging. As a result of their investigation, the DOJ announced $105,600 in settlements with four Oregon hotels, in addition to reimbursements for over 100 Oregonians who were overcharged from hotels.
“Those were great settlements for Oregonians because not only were we able to get their money back in several situations but it was a good reminder to these businesses that you can’t do this to individuals when they are in this vulnerable situation,” Klem stated.