This article was originally published on Church Law & Tax.
You may have seen the warnings after last year’s slate of hurricanes: disaster fraud made headlines as vendors, volunteers, and scammers tried to take advantage of vulnerable people in response and recovery efforts. If your church has been hit by Hurricane Florence or another major disaster, you don’t need to be scared; you just need to be prepared. Having worked with churches around the globe, I’ve seen firsthand how disasters can bring out the good in people—but also the worst.
After Hurricane Katrina, I learned of a small rural church in South Mississippi that hired a construction company from out of state that promised to help them. But there was a catch: they wanted payment up front to buy supplies. You probably know how this ends: the contractor took the money and was never seen again.
No one wants to imagine something like this could happen to them, or that they could make this kind of mistake, but it’s often difficult to think clearly in the midst of a disaster. Imagine a storm has destroyed your church or your community: your stress is high, it feels like everyone is counting on you, resources are strapped, you aren’t sure where to turn for help—every decision can feel overwhelming. Though most people responding to a disaster are doing so to help, it’s important to put safeguards into place to keep what happened to this church from happening to yours.
Most people would hear the warning bells if a vendor wanted payment up front for something as large as a major construction job. But sadly, there are lots of other ways churches can get taken advantage of by vendors post-disaster that might be less obvious at first. For example, I worked with a church in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that knew better than to pay for everything up front, but got taken advantage of when the builders actually turned out to be looters. In another situation, a vendor working on the computer system got a hold of key financial information and slowly started milking the church’s finances a little at a time so as not to set off alarms.
When possible, try to use local companies with whom you already have a relationship. You already know you can trust them, and it’s good to support local businesses that have also likely been impacted by the event. But it’s still important to have a clear contract and to protect your own interests. Just because you’ve had a prior good experience with a local vendor, you could find out that this time the temptation to make a quick buck is too tempting for them.
Price gouging— selling or renting goods or lodging “at an unconscionable price”—is a common problem after a disaster. It’s currently illegal in 35 states, but it’s still good to get quotes from multiple vendors to ensure you’re getting a fair price.
This doesn’t mean outside companies are bad—there are lots of great people and organizations that arrive from out of town because they truly want to help. And it’s highly likely that needs in your community will outweigh local resources so you’ll need to work with some outside vendors. But be mindful of red flags, like an unfamiliar company that doesn’t seem to have any public information available. I’m not just talking about searching for a website; anyone can throw up a website on the internet. Keep digging. Look for online reviews and ratings, a social media presence, call the better business bureau, check references, interview the vendors, ask around to others in your community for references.
Not all people who are out to take advantage of others are out for financial gain. It breaks my heart how many times I’ve heard of churches welcoming in volunteers—including their own congregation members—who ended up being wolves in sheep’s clothing.
If you have volunteers working with your church after the disaster, take proper precautions to do what you can, even amidst the chaos, to prevent survivors from possibly being taken advantaged of or hurt. Vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence increases during a disaster, particularly at evacuation sites and shelters. You can find a list of precautions your church can take to help prevent this here.
Ideally you will have trained and vetted staff or volunteers in place to supervise the likely influx of volunteers, some of whom you’ll know and some of whom you won’t. But the reality of a disaster is that your staff and volunteers who have had background checks and gone through your usual system may not be available to help because they evacuated, can’t get to the church because of debris, or are now the ones that need help.
This doesn’t mean you can’t accept outside help, but be sure to have trusted leaders supervising and on site at all times to keep an eye on things. Make sure they know what warning signs to look for and what to do if they see something suspect. If people are on your church property, it’s your responsibility to do what you can to protect them. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable after a disaster, so be extra careful to monitor their safety.
If your church or community finds itself in the middle of a disaster zone, it’s likely you will not just be managing vendors and volunteers, but also donations. Your church probably already has a system of some sort in place to manage financial donations, but be aware that disaster donations can be more difficult to manage. Make sure you don’t just track dollars coming in to the church; keep tally of goods and services that are given, too. Don’t fool yourself by thinking you’ll remember and will go back to document later. Even if your computer systems are down, start jotting down gifts as they come in and saving receipts in a folder.
There are several reasons you need to be dutiful in this process. One is that you will need to report the donations you received in disaster aid for tax purposes. These records will help improve transparency of how your church is handling its finances. This will also help prevent possible future accusations that funds or donations were mishandled down the road as the dust starts to settle. In 2013, a New Orleans church had to pay back $200,000 in federal disaster funds after it was found that the building repairs meant to be done with the money were incomplete and they were unable to provide documentation for how they had used the funds on the work they had done.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
When disaster strikes, be careful not to let go out the door all the precautions and safety checks your church has in place to keep your congregation members safe go out the door, especially when you are caring for children and other vulnerable survivors. Do your homework about any vendors you contract or allow access to your space or information. Keep an eye on donations being made throughout the entire disaster recovery process. Ask yourself if your current approach to tracking finances and donations will be able to adapt to a possible influx, especially of goods and services your church hasn’t had to track before. The solution doesn’t have to be high tech, just be intentional about documenting donations as they arrive.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of how to avoid being scammed after a disaster, but it should provide some principles to help you identify if something is off, and avoid potential problems down the road. Remember: If something looks, sounds, or feels suspicious, there’s a good chance it is.
Dr. Jamie Aten is an award-winning disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (January 2019).