BY KRISTEN DELGUZZI
The Cincinnati Enquirer
They are the easiest - and the most obvious - targets, but waterlogged, flood-weary victims aren't the only ones vulnerable to post-disaster skulduggery.
Neighbors wanting to contribute to the recovery process also are attractive prey for the scam artists who flock to blighted areas in search of a quick profit.
''We had one entrepreneur who was offering these little souvenir sandbags for sale for charity, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross,'' said Bob Teuscher, a customer relations representative for the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis, which was submerged when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in 1993.
''He was sort of right. Five percent was going to the Red Cross. The rest went to his pocket.''
Experts say such activity usually peaks in the days and weeks after a catastrophe, when the shock of destruction has worn off and residents have turned their attentions to rebuilding.
With that in mind, officials across the Tristate are taking a proactive approach - from conducting their own surveillance to publicizing the modus operandi of a typical con artist - to protect area residents from similar scams.
This week, representatives of the Ohio attorney general's office will be at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood recovery centers to educate flood victims about potential pitfalls.
The Better Business Bureau is advising victims to call its hot line to check on construction workers and repair people.
As they scrutinize flood-damaged buildings, Cincinnati inspectors are watching for fly-by-night construction workers. And area social service agencies are reminding folks that there are some people who will not hesitate to take advantage of their misfortune.
''That's the best antidote: calling attention to the fact that there are people like that,'' said Bob Brammer, spokesman for the Iowa attorney general's office, which took an aggressive approach to fraud after the 1993 floods there.
''The victim is probably incredulous that somebody would try to rip them off. And it is almost unbelievable. It's like adding insult to injury when that happens. But it does happen.''
One of the most common types of fraud is the construction worker who shows up promising to repair a home for much less than other workers are asking. The scam artist asks for a substantial payment upfront, to pay for supplies. Then he disappears.
To avoid being taken, never give money upfront. If you must, make the check out to the supply company. Get a written, signed contract. Check references. And, Mr. Brammer advises, jot down the worker's license plate number: If he does turn out to be a fraud, authorities will have somewhere to start looking for him.
Monte Huebsch, president of the Cincinnati Better Business Bureau, also would look up the worker in the phone book. ''If they're local and they're not listed in the phone book, that should tell you something,'' he said.
He also cautions people to think twice before paying someone hundreds of dollars to repair a damaged appliance - especially when such repairs typically carry only brief or limited warranties anyway.
The bottom line, Mr. Huebsch said, is caution and common sense.