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Beware of frauds in wake of the disaster
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- When a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina strikes the state, officials add price gouging and illegitimate charities to the list of things they must deal with.
Bobbie Shaffett, associate professor of human sciences with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, 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."
Fraudulent services are often offered for home repair and tree-trimming. Price gouging can sometimes be seen in gas, hotel and building supply prices.
According to the Mississippi Attorney General's office of Consumer Protection, price gouging goes into effect any time the governor declares a state of emergency. Merchants cannot charge any more for their products after a state of emergency has been declared than they did before that declaration. Normal pricing applies after the declaration of emergency has been lifted.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency on Aug. 28 before the storm made landfall along the Gulf Coast.
Exceptions to the price gouging rule 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.
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.
According to their Web site, the Better Business Bureau encourages the public to contribute to causes that will assist the families and victims of any catastrophe.
"Donors should make certain, however, that the charity is properly registered with appropriate state government agencies, that it describes exactly what it will do to address the needs of victims, and that it is willing to provide written information about its finances and programs," their Web site states.
Do not hesitate to ask for written information that describes the charity's programs and finances such as its latest annual report and financial statements. Even newly created organizations should have some basic information available. Be wary of charities that are reluctant to answer reasonable questions about their operations, finances and programs.