As victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and of the Northwest wildfires, work to restore their upended lives, including, in some cases, the loss of their homes and worldly possessions, getting their personal finances back on track only lengthens what seems to be an insurmountable task list.
But regaining financial security can provide peace of mind and ultimately, hasten a full recovery. Here are four immediate moves to get your finances back in shape after a natural disaster.
Contact your bank
Given the disruption of a disaster, many consumers may not be able to reach their local branch, or even one of their bank’s ATMs, for regular business such as withdrawing or depositing funds. If you’re able, call your bank to find out if they can waive non-network ATM fees and overdraft/non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees that you may accidentally incur while you recover. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation generally encourages banks to forgo those fees for those who live in federally declared disaster areas.
Remember: The money you have in the bank is safe, even if the branch you use was destroyed. Funds in CDs and savings, checking or money market accounts are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 per individual per institution (or $500,000 for married couples). If you need to access money in a CD before it matures, request that any early withdrawal fees be waived.
Also, find out the process to replace debit and credit cards, checks and other financial records that you may have lost. If you have a safe deposit box, inquire about its condition. FDIC insurance doesn’t cover the contents of safe deposit boxes, which are typically fire and water resistant.
Call your lenders
Financial institutions typically follow “disaster procedures” to help customers when these events occur. If the disaster interferes with your ability to pay certain bills such as a mortgage or auto loan payment, call your lender. Many will offer temporary deferred payment plans or place a loan in temporary forbearance, so you don’t have to make full payments. In these cases, lenders won’t charge late fees or send negative information to the credit reporting bureaus.
Additionally, some credit card issuers are willing to work with victims who have special spending needs related to disaster recovery. They may offer credit line increases or other options during your recovery. Ask your credit card issuer what lending options they have.
If you left behind your credit cards during a last-second evacuation and are worried they are missing, call your credit card issuer to report them lost. Your issuer will replace the card with a new account number, so that no one can use the old card without your permission.
It’s possible you can’t remember all of your creditors, especially at a difficult time. If so, pull your credit report from one of the three major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. Your report will list the lenders you need to contact.
If you’re likely to miss other payments, such as a utility or telecom bill, reach out to those providers for possible reprieve. If an unpaid insurance premium is among your overdue bills, check to see whether your state’s insurance regulators have mandated extensions for payment, waivers against late fees or other temporary steps—as Texas and Florida did, for example, shortly after Harvey and Irma, respectively.
Beware of scams
The aftermath of natural disasters provides the ideal environment for scammers to take advantage of desperate and exhausted victims. Many scams pop up as fake websites, phone calls, emails or text messages claiming to offer disaster assistance. Instead, they are covers to collect valuable personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account numbers. To protect yourself during this trying time, stick to these best practices:
- Don’t give out personal information over the phone if you didn’t initiate the call.
- Avoid offering information by email or text, especially if the request was unsolicited. Instead, call your financial institution directly.
- Use only the official sites of your financial institutions and the government for assistance.
- Be wary of people claiming to be government employees or volunteers, especially if they ask for money or your personal information.
Protect your credit
Consider placing a fraud alert on your credit reports—if you haven’t already done so in response to the massive Equifax breach, as we recommend. This step, which is free, requires lenders to go beyond their usual procedures to confirm that you are legitimately applying for credit. If you leave a telephone number with your fraud alert, the lender will likely call you for verification.
If you want to go a step further, consider freezing your credit report, which prevents any new lenders from pulling your credit report during the application process. This basically keeps anyone—including you—from opening new accounts. If you need a loan or another credit card to rebuild your home or business during your recovery, you will need to unfreeze your credit report before applying. Both freezing and unfreezing can come with fees, depending on the state where you reside.