Reducing the risk of identity theft after a hurricane

hurricane
The hidden horror of hurricanes

An examination of fraudulent activity and steps providers can take to help reduce customers’ risk of identity theft following a hurricane, writes Paige Schaffer of Generali Global Assistance

With the 2019 hurricane season in full swing and the Weather Channel dubbing Category-5 Hurricane Lorenzo as the ‘strongest on record in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean’, the time has come to discuss the hidden dangers of the hurricane season and how we as insurance providers can best help our US customers minimise the risk of identity theft and fraudulent activity during one of their most vulnerable times. 

Fraudsters and identity thieves view natural disasters as perfect occasions for personal gain. Criminals thrive on the resulting chaos and devastation, seizing opportunities for theft and fraud wherever possible. One of the most common ways thieves attain personal information is breaking into the evacuated areas, looking for any valuables, personal identification information, lists of passwords, and financial statements with banking information. Another frequent occurrence of fraud and identity theft after a hurricane is when criminals pose as officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), other government workers, contractors, or insurance agents to try and obtain sensitive identification information. 

US passport

Given the increase in crime surrounding hurricanes and other natural disasters, it’s our duty to help our clients reduce the risk of identity theft during and after natural disasters. If customers are well-prepared and educated ahead of a hurricane with the knowledge of which scams to look out for, they can greatly minimise their risk of falling victim to identity theft. So how can we, as insurance providers, help hurricane victims protect their identity?

Education 

Following a natural disaster, victims are actively working with government officials, charities, and volunteer groups to repair their homes and rebuild the community. Identification preservation is not top-of-mind when the affected residents are looking to provide food and shelter to their families.

Because of this, it’s important to educate customers on the type of information they need to protect, which includes government and employment identification, account numbers, contact information, online passwords, birth certificates, verification data, medical records, and account numbers. It would also be helpful for providers to outline potential threats for customers to look for after the occurrence of a natural disaster including identity theft, the hijacking of financial accounts, disaster relief fraud, employment ID fraud, medical ID fraud, and mortgage scams, among others.

Additionally, customers would benefit from receiving information on common scams we see in the aftermath, which includes con artists posing as FEMA workers, house or building inspectors, or volunteers from charities offering disaster donations and fake offers of state or federal aid. Similar to IRS scam notifications, it would be effective for insurance providers to create and distribute factsheets to customers via email that outline FEMA’s and other organisations’ processes and protocols once the threat of a hurricane has been identified. These sheets would instruct customers to ask for employee identification numbers instead of looking at shirt or jacket logos on uniforms, to not provide financial account information via phone, text, email, or in-person, to never provide any type of worker with cash payments, and to only provide personal identification information on legitimate applications from an organisation’s official website. 

safety box

Preparation

After illustrating the hidden dangers of hurricanes and other national disasters, providers should outline critical steps customers should take to reduce the risk of identity theft. The most important step to communicate is to upload front-to-back scans of important identification, insurance, banking, medical and legal documents to the cloud, back them up on a USB or external hard drive and store them off the property in a safety deposit box. It would also be wise to invest in a waterproof box or pouch that can hold copies of the scans as well as any other significant documents in case of evacuation. 

Another important measure to take is to cancel mail delivery with the US Postal Services once customers learn of an upcoming hurricane. Piles of unopened mail waiting in a mailbox can contain sensitive data or bank statements and may attract identity thieves to snoop further into a person’s evacuated home.   

Aftermath contact  

Once the storm has abated, providers should contact customers in the impacted region via email to provide recommendations on how to monitor for and reduce the risk of identity theft and remind them of the protocols FEMA and other relief organisations follow. Suggestions will depend on the severity of the storm, but will ultimately include guidelines to frequently check credit report activity, monitor medical bills and explanation of benefits for suspicious activity, update bank and credit card issuers of a temporary address if applicable, and tips to carefully research any contractors who approach them for repairs. ■