HARLINGEN — Federal and state organizations have partnered to provide free legal and recovery assistance to people in Cameron County affected by the flooding from the June storms.
The organizations include the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“The legal services are available to qualifying survivors, and it is only available to their request,” said Latanga Hopes, FEMA Public Information Officer.
Applicants can call the FEMA disaster assistance hotline at 1-800-621-3362 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Individuals who qualify for assistance will be matched with lawyers who can provide free, limited legal help.
However, victims requesting help should be aware there are some limitations on disaster legal services.
For example, assistance is not available for cases that will produce a fee (i.e., those cases where attorneys are paid part of the settlement by the court). Such cases are referred to a local lawyer referral service.
Those who qualify also may use texaslegalanswers.org to pose specific questions related to disaster legal issues and get answers online by volunteer attorneys.
The State Bar of Texas also reminds victims it is a crime in many cases in Texas for a lawyer or someone representing a lawyer to contact a person for purposes of legal representation if the person has not first requested the call or personal visit.
The contact is not illegal if the attorney is not seeking payment nor has a preexisting professional-client or family relationship with the person being contacted.
Residents that witness improper solicitation should get the name and phone number of the person making contact and report it to their local law enforcement authority or the State Bar Chief Disciplinary Counsel’s Office at 866-224-5999.
BEWARE OF FRAUD
FEMA and the Texas Attorney General’s Office warn residents of the risk of fraud and common scams in the wake of the severe weather.
“We are mitigating the process and trying to prevent fraud from happening,” Hopes said. “We are trying to make sure survivors know that it is a possibility, and we are trying to keep their best interest.”
Common post-disaster frauds include phony housing inspectors, fraudulent building contractors, bogus pleas for disaster donations, and fake offers of state or federal aid.
Flood victims are urged to ask questions and to require identification when someone claims to represent a government agency.
Survivors should also keep in mind that state and federal workers never ask for nor accept money, and always carry identification badges with a photograph.
“We would like to prevent further victimization. These people are survivors of a disaster, and to make sure they are not further victimized, we want them to be on alert that there are people that would take advantage of their situation,” Hopes said. “FEMA is providing awareness and survivors should take care and be mindful and be vigilant.”
There is no fee to apply for or to receive disaster assistance from FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) or the state.
Additionally, no state or federal government disaster assistance agency will call to ask for your financial account information. Unless you place a call to the agency yourself, you should not provide personal information over the phone.
Those who suspect fraud can call the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.
Complaints can also be made to local law enforcement agencies.
Organizations can offer help to flood victims with:
• Securing government benefits as they are made available to disaster victims.
• Life, medical, and property insurance claims.
• Home repair contracts and contractors.
• Replacement of wills and other important legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster.
• Consumer protection issues, such as price-gouging and avoiding contractor scams in the rebuilding process.
• Counseling on mortgage-foreclosure problems.
• Counseling on landlord-tenant problems