Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has awarded $390,330 to help county residents avoid becoming victims of hurricane-related crime. The grant will enable the County Commission to continue funding the Baldwin County Hurricane Fraud Task Force, formed a year ago …
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has awarded $390,330 to help county residents avoid becoming victims of hurricane-related crime. The grant will enable the County Commission to continue funding the Baldwin County Hurricane Fraud Task Force, formed a year ago by District Attorney Judy Newcomb as a way to combat those who seek to take advantage of others after a storm strikes the coast.
“The Baldwin County response team ensures that criminals and scam artists who prey upon hurricane victims are held accountable,” Riley stated in a press release. “The task force protects residents by catching those who take advantage of disaster victims and punishing them to the fullest extent of the law.”
County officials say price gouging, charity scams and contractor fraud are some of the biggest crime problems in the aftermath of a hurricane. To prevent these and other hurricane-related crimes, the task force develops and distributes brochures and public service announcements to warn residents of scams and teach them ways to avoid being victimized.
The team not only warns residents of crime threats associated with hurricane preparation and recovery, it also investigates such crimes reported in the county.
“We worked over 120 cases in the first year (post-Ivan and Katrina),” said Trisha Lo Porto, grant project director. “There are many good Samaritans who come here after a hurricane, but also scam artists who make it a career.”
When crimes are reported, the group coordinates investigations and prosecutes cases when deemed appropriate. Through March of this year, the team’s investigations led to 25 indictments that involved crimes committed against victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Lo Porto noted there are several types of hurricane fraud to look out for, and simple ways to avoid becoming a victim, including:
• Charity scams — Make donations by check or money order to the name of the charity. Never respond to an e-mail message asking for donations.
• Contractor fraud — The contractor accepts payment, starts the project and does not return to complete it.
• Debris removal — Roadside debris removal vehicles are not allowed to enter your personal property to remove debris.
• Fake disaster officials — Some scam artists claim to be government officials who could help you qualify for disaster relief payments for a processing fee.
• Home repair scams — Deal with licensed and insured contractors only. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not certify any contractors.
• Identity theft — Do not give personal information such as account numbers, Social Security number or other identification information to strangers; whether on the phone, online or in person.
• Insurance fraud — To prevent fraudulent sales of damaged vehicles and water craft, check the vehicle identification number (VIN) or hull identification number (HIN) in the National Insurance Crime Base, www.nicb.org.
• Price gouging — Price gougers sell products or services for a price more that 25 percent over the average price prior to the storm.
• Rental listing scams — Someone promises to find you housing, but asks you to pay in advance.
Lo Porto said, “You have to get references and verify they are legitimate business people. Ask for identification and proof they are licensed and bonded. They should have a license in the municipality where they’re working.”
She added, “Watch out for your neighbors. They (scammers) go door to door. They’re prone to go into senior citizen communities.”
Lo Porto continued, saying, “Our job is to prevent and educate. That’s the purpose of our office. We look for unscrupulous people. Other law enforcement agencies are taxed after a storm.”
Riley awarded the latest grant from funds made available to the state by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs will administer the award. Local matching funds of $39,033 will supplement the award.
A $438,000 federal Hurricane Fraud Grant helped Lo Porto and Newcomb get the ball rolling last year.
If you feel you are a victim of a hurricane-related crime, call the Baldwin County Hurricane Fraud Task Force at (251) 947-2215.