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Fraud Among The Threats For Victims Of Hurricane Harvey


As the floodwaters in Houston recede, the risk of fraud goes up.

COREY AMUNDSON: And it starts with charity fraud, contractor fraud, emergency assistance fraud. And it evolves into program fraud as the monies come from the federal government.

SHAPIRO: U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson of Louisiana leads the National Center for Disaster Fraud. It has a call center that operates 24/7, taking complaints from anywhere in the country related to disasters. He says there have already been many complaints since Harvey. I asked him what specific reports of fraud he's hearing about.

AMUNDSON: The first his impersonations. We're getting people impersonating inspectors, both FEMA inspectors, insurance inspectors as well as the National Flood Insurance Program inspectors. That's one category. Second category are essentially fraud submissions. People claiming that others have filed claims on their property already and that their Social Security numbers are being used by somebody else. Those are all claims that we're seeing come in. We've had over a hundred calls at this point of complaints involving fraud associated with Harvey.

SHAPIRO: Does tech make this more complicated, whether it's identity fraud or people buying web domains that sound like they're disaster relief when they're actually not?

AMUNDSON: Yes. Social media is both a good thing and a bad thing in these disasters. And unfortunately the downside is that criminals also use the technology to attempt to defraud folks. I would encourage anybody that gets an email, for example, that solicits donations not to respond to the email but also not to click on any attachment or link. People should also look out for attempts to use names that sound somewhat familiar to a legitimate organization but are just slightly off.

SHAPIRO: The Crimson Cross (laughter).

AMUNDSON: Exactly, exactly. So if something feels off, it probably is. And I would encourage people to use their common sense and their gut in dealing with some of these issues because as much as we can try to identify all the different ways criminals might try to victimize people, it won't be an exhaustive list.

SHAPIRO: How do you prevent people from being taken advantage of in these cases?

AMUNDSON: Well, unfortunately the lesson is you can't prevent it all, but we can certainly take steps to help people prevent themselves from being defrauded. One of those steps is going to those charities that you know and trust and making those solicitation - those contributions directly to them. Don't provide money to people that are asking for it, certainly not in cash. And if you feel like you're being bullied or intimidated into a contribution, that's typically going to be a red flag that that's not a legitimate organization or person that's trying to help the victims. It's somebody that's trying to defraud you.

SHAPIRO: And so what do you expect the next phase of this to be?

AMUNDSON: Well, unfortunately, you know, I'd call it both a marathon and a sprint. The sprint part of it is there are disaster schemes right now, and they've already begun, and they will continue to. And we need to get a handle on those immediately in order to both deter that conduct as well as to demonstrate to people - the victims in particular - that we are out there and we are going to be supporting them.

But the second piece of it is the fact that this will likely be a 5- to 7-year odyssey and war against this fraud in its various iterations. And that's just a reality that we've seen based on experience. We've handled over 40 different disasters since the center has been founded. And that just - that's the reality of disaster fraud in this day and age.

But the good news is, with the center, we have a national coordination point where we're able to provide best practices to law enforcement. And we feel confident that we are well-positioned to do what we need to do to attack the issue.

SHAPIRO: Corey Amundson leads the National Center for Disaster Fraud. Thank you for joining us.

AMUNDSON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.