PEMBROKE — North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper visited Robeson County on Tuesday to warn people of post-disaster scams and price-gouging in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Cooper, who has been North Carolina’s top prosecutor since 2001, is involved in a tight race for governor against incumbent Pat McCrory. Democratic candidate Cooper did not discuss the campaign Tuesday, saying he wanted to focus on his current position as attorney general.
Cooper toured the emergency shelter at Purnell Swett High School before offering fact sheets and advice on those looking to prey upon victims of the hurricane. His office highlighted storm repair scams, price gouging and fake charities as three ongoing threats. Fewer than 200 people were staying at the shelter Tuesday, down from a peak of more than 600.
“When the flood waters recede, the scam artists arrive,” Cooper said. “They try to get money up front for tree removal, to make repairs and they will often run off with it. We encourage people to call their insurance company, never pay up front and get written estimates.”
As the recovery continues there has been great generosity, however, Cooper advised caution when giving.
“People want to give and we encourage them to give,” Cooper said. “But scam artists will create fake charities and will knock on your door, call you, even online with sites like GoFundMe. We encourage people to give to established charities, ones that you know. And if you do some sort of local crowd-funding, that you know the people involved.”
The city of Lumberton and Robeson County have started online fundraisers to give those wishing to donate to Hurricane Matthew relief efforts a secure way to do so.
The city’s official GoFundMe page, accessible by visiting ci.lumberton.nc.us and clicking “donate now,” had raised $19,250 by Tuesday afternoon — five days after the page was started.
To donate via PayPal to the county, visit goo.gl/fLNdoa. The county’s drive has been given $692.16, as of publication.
A check of the city of Lumberton’s chosen crowd sourcing website, GoFundMe.com, on Tuesday resulted in dozens of hurricane relief campaigns claiming to benefit Robeson County.
“The last issue is price gouging,” Cooper said. “Most of the businesses chip in when there is a disaster and help the community — and I saw evidence of that today where a lot of small businesses brought food and water and things that people need. But there are some who want to take advantage.”
The Attorney General’s Office has received more than 150 complaints of price gouging statewide and has sent out subpoenas to businesses, gas stations, grocery stores and motel owners.
“When we are in a disaster, as we are now, the price gouging law is triggered,” Cooper said.
In a disaster it is illegal for businesses in North Carolina to charge prices “unreasonably excessive under the circumstances.”
Cooper asked that North Carolinians report scams and price-gouging online at NCDOJ.gov or to their dedicated telephone line at 877-5NO-SCAM.
“Keep receipts,” he said. “If there are price postings take a picture with your cell phone … this will allow us to have as much information as we can about the issue.”
In the past businesses have been fined and consumers have received refunds for charging excessively.
“The price gouging law has served as a strong deterrent. Most businesses know about it and are careful not to go up on their prices in a disaster,” Cooper said.
Those who want to be sure their donations stay local can also contribute to the United Way of Robeson County’s Disaster Relief Fund at UnitedWayRobeson.org. One hundred percent of the fund will go toward relief efforts and any money remaining in the fund will be put toward future disaster recovery.
United Way of North Carolina also works in partnership with the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund to support long-term recovery efforts. Donations to the North Carolina Relief Fund for Hurricane Matthew can be made by texting NCRECOVERS to 30306 or by visiting NCDisasterRelief.org.
Reach Mike Gellatly via Twitter @MikeGellatly