This is the third installment in our four-part series that uncovers commons types of scams that occur after a natural disaster.
The destruction and devastation brought on by natural disasters are hard enough for victims to endure. Unfortunately, aside from physical damage to homes and infrastructure, those who live through disasters also have to stand on guard against predators who seek to take advantage of those affected by catastrophic events.
Identity theft has become more common in the wake of natural disasters, as fraudsters have increasingly used times of turmoil as an opportunity to steal sensitive information lost or abandoned in the chaos.
Here’s a look at how criminals have taken advantage of disaster victims in the past and some smart measures you can take to protect your personal information should calamity strike.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, two men named Scott Benson and Chris Armstrong collected the personal information of up to 2,500 New Orleans emergency workers by convincing them to sign up for compensatory debit vouchers. Police officers and firefighters were told that media company Viacom was sponsoring the project and that the vouchers were worth up to $5,000. When the officers showed up to collect their vouchers, having given away their names and addresses, they found that no vouchers were ever forthcoming. The entire project was a scam, and the two men were arrested and charged with false impersonation and conspiracy to commit identity theft.
In another instance, Shantell Moses, a former Louisiana resident, scammed her way into obtaining $16,915 worth of disaster funds after the American Red Cross made financial assistance available to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Neither Moses, nor the Georgia resident whose stolen identity was used to create a false Louisiana I.D., were identified as hurricane victims. Moses pleaded guilty to mail fraud and identity theft. She was sentenced to a maximum term of imprisonment of 15 years and a $250,000 fine.
Yet, it was this type of criminal activity that initially provoked the Department of Justice to create the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force in 2005. After Hurricanes Rita and Wilma wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast during the same year, the task force expanded their operations to cover the entire country under a new identity, the Disaster Fraud Task Force. Between 2005 and 2011, the task force helped to prosecute some 1,439 individuals across 47 federal districts for a variety of fraudulent activity, including identity theft.
Here are some proactive things you can do to avoid getting scammed in the wake of a natural disaster.
Be careful when giving out your personal information. There are many organizations that give out relief funds after disasters, and some of them may require you to provide personal information to collect funds. Make sure the organization requesting your personal information is a reputable one. If you have any question as to whether they are a legitimate organization, do your research and contact the The Better Business Bureau in your area, which keeps a list of other reputable organizations. You can also ask around your community as well as do your research online to see if they have had any consumer complaints or issues. Better safe than sorry.
Be safe online. After a storm, many people lose power or access to electronics and check email or bank accounts on public computers. Make sure that any Wi-Fi networks you choose to connect to in the wake of a disaster are secure and password-protected. Typing personal information into an unsecure server can leave you vulnerable to hackers.
Protect your personal documents. Photocopy and store personal identification in a safety deposit box. Make copies of credit cards, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and health insurance cards and keep them locked up in a safe place.
Put a hold on your mail. If you must leave your home after a natural disaster strikes, ask your post office to hold your mail until you return. The mail often contains important personal information, and leaving mail lying in your mailbox for long periods of time makes it easy for thieves to get a hold of your information.