Northern California Fire Scams Worse Than Previously Thought

Nov 14, 2017

Federal officials suspect there have been tens of thousands of fraudulent claims filed for disaster relief following the deadly Northern California fires. That estimate means it’s a much bigger problem than they previously thought.

“It is an awful lot,” said FEMA spokesman Frank Mansell.

A couple of weeks ago FEMA had said fraudulent claims numbered in the thousands.

In some cases, residents have gotten fake mail, phone calls or in-person visits from people claiming to be federal officials.

Officials say the process of vetting claims for disaster relief is thorough but that people should be prepared to respond if they suspect fraud or identity theft in the wake of the Northern California fires.

Here are common frauds, which you can also find on FEMA’s website.

What you need to know to avoid common types of fraud:

Beware of anyone claiming to be from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the state initiating visits, calls or emails asking for an applicant’s Social Security number, bank account number or other sensitive information.
Avoid scam artists who promise a disaster grant and ask for cash or advance payments in full.
Keep in mind federal workers do not solicit or accept money. FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration staff never charge applicants for disaster assistance, inspections or help in filling out applications.
Provide your Social Security number and banking information only when registering for FEMA assistance, either by calling 800-621-3362, TTY 800-462-7585, or going online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or the smart phone FEMA App.
If you use 711-Relay or Video Relay Services, call 800-621-3362. Operators are multilingual and calls are answered from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Avoid phony housing inspectors: Owners/applicants may be especially vulnerable to phony housing inspectors claiming to represent FEMA or SBA. An applicant should always:

Ask to see the inspector’s identification badge. All federal employees and contractors carry official, laminated photo identification.
Inspectors should also have each applicant’s nine-digit registration number.
FEMA inspectors never require banking information.
Note that FEMA housing inspectors verify damage, but do not hire or endorse specific contractors to fix homes or recommend repairs. They do not determine your eligibility for assistance.

If you aren’t filing for disaster relief but suspect someone is using your identity, contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or by email at disaster@leo.gov.

If you are trying to apply for disaster relief but someone has used your identity to open an application, bring identification such as a drivers license or utility bill to a local disaster assistance center and notify FEMA officials there, Mansell says. They will help re-register people and issue a new registration number, he said.

Some people are getting home visits by people claiming to be from FEMA. Mansell said FEMA workers will call before coming to inspect properties and if they schedule an appointment, they will offer their government ID. After the application is initiated, FEMA says the process should include interviews and collection of more details before approval.

“There’s a lot more checks and balances,” Mansell says.

Any suspected fraud cases will be forwarded to the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he said. An official at that agency declined to say how many claims are under investigation.

The deadline to file for disaster relief is Dec. 13.

If you suspect criminal or suspicious activity related to disaster relief or received a letter from the U.S. Small Business Administration and you did not apply for disaster relief with FEMA or SBA, report to the National Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721 or by email at disaster@leo.gov and contact SBA Customer Service Center at 1-800-659-2955.

KQED wants to hear your story. Have you experienced a fraudulent claim or potential scam following the North Bay fires? Please email reporter Devin Katayama at dkatayama@kqed.org.

Sukey Lewis contributed to this report.

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