Hurricane Charley apparently has quickly surpassed the infamous Hurricane Andrew in one unsavory category: scam artists.
By Monday, just days after Charley stormed through Florida, the state Attorney General's Office had received more than 1,000 complaints about price gouging. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had another 400.
It took about two weeks for such complaints to top 1,000 in the wake of Andrew in 1992.
"These people have no remorse, they have no conscience," said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The most common ripoff is from people posing as contractors or tree services. They usually make the pitch that they have been working in the area anyway and can do the work for less since they're already there. Sometimes they ask for the money upfront or take a partial payment, then disappear.
In addition to victimizing the hurricane victims, con artists also target the public's generosity by seeking donations of goods and especially money by setting up fake charities and claiming the proceeds will go to storm victims.
Since Andrew predates the widespread use of the Internet, today's scammers have new tools such as e-mail to reach a broader audience. And Hurricane Charley comes in a year of increasing online scams, particularly "phishing" schemes, which start with what appear to be legitimate e-mail from reputable companies, including banks and credit card companies, that direct people to bogus Web sites where con artists try to get personal information.
"Donors are still somewhat wary of giving on the Internet," said H. Art Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. "The numbers are going up... It's something we're going to have to keep a watch on in the future."
Experts suggest storm victims and would-be donors take steps to protect themselves. In particular, they should check the credentials of those they hire or to whom they make contributions. The Agriculture Department can give information on the complaint history of a business.
It also can report whether a charity is registered with the state, how it spends the money and how much of its donations are spent on overhead. A strong recommendation is to deal with well-known and established charities, such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way.
People can call the Construction Industry Licensing Board to see if a contractor is licensed, as well as local government building departments to see if they are familiar with the contractor. Government officials recommended that people get more than one bid, and be wary if the low bid is substantially less than others.
"Our best defense is to have an informed consumer," said Larry Krick, supervisor of the regulatory division in the Pinellas County Consumer Affairs Office.