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Disasters bring chance for fraudulent activity
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- After Hurricane Ivan made his mark on the state, officials are adding price gouging and illegitimate charities to the list of things they must deal with.
Bobbie Shaffett, Extension associate professor of human sciences at Mississippi State University, said Mississippians are a generous people, but there are always a few people who see a disaster as an opportunity to scam others.
"There are always people who are going to try to steal your money any way they can," Shaffett said. "Since we are a generous and kind-hearted people, they are going to try to use that against us and deceive us."
Grant Hedgepeth, director of Consumer Protection with the Mississippi Attorney General's office, said the department is expecting a lot of home repair and tree-trimming services fraud. It is also watching gas, hotel and building supply prices for evidence of price gouging. As of mid-morning Thursday, 80 reports had been filed of alleged price gouging since Wednesday.
"Price gouging goes into effect any time the governor declares a state of emergency," Hedgepeth said. "Merchants cannot charge any more for their products after a state of emergency has been declared than they did before that declaration."
He said some exceptions exist, such as one that allows merchants to raise their price to cover increased cost as they replenish their supply. Violation of the price gouging laws carries criminal penalties of up to five years in the state penitentiary.
Overall, Hedgepeth praised the behavior of the state's merchants, but he did encourage them to remember who they are.
"You're part of this state, too ... (so) be a good neighbor," he said.
Another activity that often occurs after a disaster is requests for money from fraudulent charities. Shaffett, who specializes in family resource management in MSU's School of Human Sciences, urged generous donors to use caution when giving to what sounds like a good cause.
"Examine your options and don't feel like you have to give to the first charity that approaches you," Shaffett said. "Donate by check and don't give cash, especially for sizeable donations. Give to known, reputable organizations. Question someone who comes door-to-door or who stands on a corner asking for donations."
In Mississippi, the Secretary of State's office governs charities, and can provide information on such things as how much of the money goes to charity rather than being spent on administration or fund-raising.
"The bottom line is to examine your options when you want to give to charity and be wary of people who are long on emotion and short on facts," Shaffett said.