September is National Preparedness Month, and by no coincidence, it's also the historic peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. So it's a good time to ask: Are you prepared by the next disaster - and its aftermath storm of opportunity for scammers?
There are charity scams. Rip-off repairmen known as " storm chasers" who flock to devastated communities, causing more problems than they repair. So-called "flood cars" damaged by high or raging waters, but still driveable, that may be transported thousands of miles to soak unsuspected buyers.
And perhaps what feels like a scam: Insurance companies that may focus on hassles rather than help you when you're most in need - dragging their feet, short-changing or flatly denying insurance claims. So in addition to knowing FEMA's recommended contents for a bring-with-you disaster supplies kit, here are some tips to avoid (or at least minimize) possible insurance claim hassles:
Prove your possessions. If you haven't already, take photographs or or video-tape the contents of each room - including the garage - for proof you own possessions that might be lost or damaged. "An advantage of videotaping possessions is you can narrate, such as 'I bought this table at this store, at this time, it's this brand and cost me this much,'" notes Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute, which provides free online home inventory software, Know Your Stuff that can be accessed from anywhere or via a mobile app for iPhones and Android phones.
Know your policy. The biggest mistake made by disaster-devastated homeowners? Not knowing beforehand what their policies cover...and don't, says Salvatore. With "replacement cost" policies, you're covered for today's cost of re-buying damaged possessions; "cash value" policies cover items at their depreciated value, meaning you won't get as much money back. Also know that while tornado and fire damage are covered by most homeowners policies, supplemental insurance is needed for earthquakes and flood damage. Gauge risk and policy cost of the latter for your address at FloodSmart.gov. Know there's a 30-day "waiting period" from the time you buy to when flood insurance policies take effect.
Get your records ready to go. By avoiding a last-minute paper chase, you'll be better prepared to avoid post-disaster problems proving your identity and possessions (aside from insurance claims). When you have mere minutes to evacuate your home, there's little time to collect paperwork you'll need later. So now, collect and make copies of the following documents and records:
- Personal: birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, passports, diplomas and military documents, Social Security cards, and photocopies of your driver's license and page(s) of the front and back of all credit cards. Also include phone numbers of friends and relatives, because those stored on your cellphone may be inaccessible if its battery dies and electricity is lost for recharging.
- Home and property: home deed, mortgage and closing statements; car titles; insurance policies or at the minimum, your policy numbers and contact information for your agent and insurer; appraisal documents of jewelry and other valuables.
- Estate: your will, executor and estate planning paperwork, including names and phone numbers of attorneys and estate planners.
- Medical: Medicare and/or health insurance cards, prescription records (especially for medications for chronic conditions like diabetes and asthma), and contact information for your doctors.
- Financial: stock and bond certificates; IRA or 401(k) account numbers; bank statements; and tax records, including W2s and important receipts. Get more info on safeguarding tax documents from the IRS.
- Computer: Make copies of important computer files and photographs on an external hard drive and other back-up device, as well as an offsite service such as Dropbox, which is free.
Keep one set of originals in a portable file system or more-secure lock box for grab-and-go convenience and a "backup" set of electronic copies - scanned or photographed onto CDs, DVDs or external hard drives - stored in another safe location, such as a bank safe deposit box or distant home of a trusted friend or relative.