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.
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