OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - A federal investigation has been launched following dozens of fraudulent applications for federal disaster assistance after the North Bay wildfires.
Numerous neighbors in Napa County contacted 2 Investigates after getting a letter in their mailboxes claiming they had registered with FEMA for assistance with disaster losses. However, the homeowners claim they never applied for any assistance at all.
“It says somebody applied for a loan in my name,” Rachael Clark said. “I was immediately suspicious. Several of my neighbors – it happened to them.”
The letter was sent by the U.S. Small Business Administration, commonly delivered following an application with FEMA. It’s the most common sign of fraud following the North Bay fires, according to federal and local law enforcement.
The FBI opened a "Fraud Against the Government - Federal Disaster Relief" investigation, which encompass all financial aid, construction and identity complaints or reports of fraud related to disaster relief.
A task force was formed to deal with the dozens of fraudulent claims and scammers with the hopes of prosecuting those trying to make money off fire victims. In many cases, the claims to FEMA are duplicates, where fire victims had trouble signing up for aid because someone else had already registered using their name and other personal information.
“We are aware of what’s going on and we will do our best to find them,” Napa Deputy District Attorney Patrick Collins said. “These are difficult cases because these people aren’t local, they could be out of the country for all we know.”
The Napa County District Attorney’s Office said with just limited personal information FEMA will send out, in good faith, an initial $500 check to victims. Fraudsters can get their hands on that money by opening up a new ‘dummy’ bank account, using a Green Dot money pack card or just stealing from a person’s mailbox.
“It’s just said to see that,” Collins said. “They’re using the information they’ve hacked, they’re applying online, the money’s going electronically somewhere else and it makes it very difficult to catch them.”
If you think you could be a victim, it is recommended you check or freeze your credit and also file a police report. Collins also warns of some scammers posing as FEMA inspectors going door to door. Inspectors should never show up, unless you apply first.
“This is the perfect time for them to strike,” Collins said. “We are aware of what’s going on and we will do our best to find them.”
Napa County issued a press release in late October regarding fraudulent FEMA applications as well as fraudulent Social Security applications. Since then, more and more complaints about potential fraud have come to light.
Thomas Kempton with FEMA said personal information could potentially have been hacked in one of numerous data breeches of private companies or creditors.
Fraudulent FEMA applications are often submitted electronically or gained by someone pretending to be an official government worker, Kempton said.
“In this disaster in California, we’ve seen hundreds,” he said. “All of these agencies will have a uniform of some kind and will have a government-issued I.D.”
If there is suspected fraud, the FEMA Office of Chief Security Officer can be contacted at FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov or call DHS Office of Inspector General at 800-323-8630.
For many, the first sign of identity theft is the letter from the U.S. Small Business Administration reading in an opening line “you recently registered with FEMA for assistance with your disaster losses…”
“We didn’t know what we were looking at, at first,” William Koontz with the SBA said. “It’s actually very hard to steal from the government. It’s easy to try but it’s actually very difficult to go through the process and actually get your hands on the money.”
The SBA said it’s critically important that homeowners report potential fraud.
If you or someone you know receives a letter from the SBA or FEMA they can check on the validity of a claim by calling 800-621-3362. Wait times can be long since it’s the same number for other recent U.S. disasters and to register new survivors.
Neighbors in Napa are just desperate to get the word out and hope those responsible are brought to justice.
“It hurts my heart to the core,” Clark said. “I feel violated.”
The FBI would not say how much money, if any, has been defrauded, however, it did say the investigation is ongoing.
Much of the fraud goes beyond FEMA including social security application fraud and other forms of identity theft.
To report fraud contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud
Email: email@example.com or by phone at 866-720-5721.