WASHINGTON — Following the devastation left by Hurricane Michael, federal officials are encouraging victims of the storm to keep the National Center for Disaster Fraud in mind.
The Department of Justice established the NCDF in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The NCDF, a national coordinating agency within the department’s criminal division, operates a call center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for disaster fraud complaints and information relating to both natural and man-made disasters.
After Hurricane Michael’s arrival, many people were left without food, water or shelter, and are experiencing damage to life and property. Officials said criminals stand ready to take advantage of victims.
“Ninety-nine percent of folks are here to do good, but our citizens need to be aware there are fraudsters out there,” Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney Charlie Peeler told The Albany Herald in an interview on Friday.
Officials said the NCDF seeks to improve and further the detection, prevention, investigation and prosecution of fraud related to natural and man-made disasters, and to advocate for victims of such fraud.
“Following Hurricane Michael’s landfall and as recovery efforts continue, it is important for people to be on the lookout for fraudsters who seek to profit from natural disasters through identity theft schemes, impersonation of government officials and solicitations for fake charities,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a news release. “The Department of Justice is committed to detecting this type of fraud, and we will aggressively prosecute the offenders. Through our National Center for Disaster Fraud, and in conjunction with our law enforcement partners, we are working to keep Americans from becoming victims of these schemes.”
Examples of illegal activity to report to the NCDF through the center’s 24-hour hotline include:
— Impersonation of federal law enforcement officials;
— Identity theft;
— Fraudulent submission of claims to insurance companies and the federal government;
— Fraudulent activity related to solicitations for donations and charitable giving;
— Fraudulent activity related to individuals and organizations promising high investment returns from profits from recovery and cleanup efforts;
— Price gouging;
— Contractor fraud;
— Debris removal fraud;
— Theft, looting, and other violent crime.
Officials said numerous U.S. Attorneys offices in districts impacted by recent hurricanes have established task forces comprising local, state and federal agencies in their respective areas to combat disaster fraud. Members of the public are reminded to apply a critical eye and exercise caution before trusting anyone purporting to be working on behalf of disaster victims.
“The NCDF has an excellent staff of investigators, analysts, call center operators and managers who are well-prepared to handle the anticipated volume of complaints after the recent hurricanes and help ensure that each report of fraud reaches the appropriate investigative agency,” Middle District of Louisiana U.S. Attorney Brandon J. Fremin, who is also the NCDF’s executive director, said in a news release. “Raising public awareness is a great way for the NCDF to reach thousands of people who may one day be subjected to fraudulent schemes.”
Officials said the public should exercise care before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations on behalf of disaster victims as well as being extremely cautious before providing personal identifying or financial information to anyone, especially those who make contact after a natural disaster. Solicitations can originate from e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, mailings, telephone calls and similar methods.
Members of the public who suspect fraud, waste, abuse or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief operations, or believe they have been the victim of fraud from a person or organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of disaster victims, should contact the NCDF hotline toll free at (866) 720-5721. Individuals can also fax information to the center at (225) 334-4707, or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peeler said the center will serve as a centralized point for people to send in tips, which are screened by the center’s staff before they are forwarded to the appropriate agency for investigation. He said that in the days since Hurricane Michael, several tips have come in from the southwest Georgia area.
This resource is not expected to go away anytime soon.
“Fraud can sometimes follow months after a natural disaster,” Peeler said.
Learn more about the NCDF at www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud and watch a public service announcement there. Tips for the public on how to avoid being victimized of fraud are at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/tips-avoiding-fraudulent-charitable-contribution-schemes.