HOUSTON - As the flood water goes down and people start to rebuild, the government is warning people to be aware of scammers.
Federal and local officials urged people to remain vigilant when donating to charities, hiring contractors or applying for disaster assistance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
“Times like these give fraudsters opportunities to pray on poor and unwitting people in our community,” said Abe Martinez, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “There are a number of folks out there that will devise schemes to (steal from) people who are looking for assistance and people who are looking to help people who need assistance.”
“I’m here with a warning to all who would prey upon our community in its most vulnerable time. If you are thinking about committing fraud, submitting a fraudulent application to the government, ripping someone off of a contracting deal, or stealing peoples identification, know that if you’re caught, the full weight of the law, both federal and state, will be upon you,” explained Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “And it’s likely that you will be caught.”
Authorities said they typically see three types of fraud happen after a natural disaster – charity, consumer and program.
They want consumers to call the Disaster Fraud Hotline, 1-866-720-5721, if they notice anything that is suspicious.
Charity fraudsters usually prey on people who are looking to donate money to the victims of the disaster, authorities said. They said people should ensure they are working with a trusted charity, preferably one they have dealt with in the past. They said people should also double check website addresses to make sure they’re donating to the actual charity of their choice instead of a front.
Many people have big hearts and want to give through monetary donations, but Martinez said people have to be alert.
“People will use variations of the Red Cross to set up their own internet websites and they’ll change a letter, change a word here and there and people believe they’re actually donating to the American Red Cross,” Martinez said.
He said charities like the Red Cross don’t solicit people over the phone or by buckets in the streets.
“What we would ask folks to do is to donate to charities that they know of that are legitimate that they have dealt with in the past,” Martinez said.
Authorities said consumer fraudsters take advantage of the disaster victims by accepting money to rebuild a home, for example, and then never following through on the job. They said people should check the credibility of a contractor via the Better Business Bureau and be wary of giving large sums of money to anyone in advance.
Martinez said he expects to see a number of contractors from out of town and maybe even out of state coming to Houston.
He said it’s important that people be mindful of who they’re dealing with and what they’re asking for. It’s advised not to give money up front.
“A number of those would say, ‘give me $5,000 so I can buy all the materials that we’ll need to build your homes.’ If folks are asking you to front money, you have to be very careful because we’ve had a number of cases in the past where folks come in and they collect money then the people trying to have their home rebuilt never see those folks again.”
In program fraud, the perpetrators try to take advantage of the system by pretending to be federal agents hired to perform home inspections, authorities said. They said Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel will never charge someone to perform an inspection.
Authorities said people should never give out personal identification information, such as Social Security numbers, over the phone or to someone they do not know.
The U.S. Department of Justice says there’s a concern for a number of people displaced and who have lost their homes.
“We’ll have folks that impersonate FEMA and those folks generally ask for money upfront. FEMA will never ask for money upfront; they don’t do that,” Martinez said.
“We have these India call centers, people who call from overseas and asking or telling folks that they’re able to provide assistance as a result of this fraud and they’re asking for personal identification information. Folks should not make that info available to anyone calling over the phone,” Martinez said.
He said after Katrina, more than 100 people were prosecuted for scamming others.
Ogg said officers are transiting from last week’s search and rescue efforts to regular operations.
She said on the state level, theft and fraud crimes are value based. Once the amount goes above $2,500 -- people could face felony charges and jail time.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said authorities are doing everything they can to protect consumers and storm victims, but she said a little common sense goes a long way. She encouraged people to never open the door until they have verified the identity of the person knocking. She also said people should ask to see identification as well as a badge.
The call center is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
People can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can file a complaint online by clicking link here.
“If you’re asked to pay anything while applying for disaster assistance, it’s a scam,” said David Green, special agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.
Anyone who believes they have been the victim of fraud or notices something fraudulent is asked to call the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721.
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