Officials are warning people living in areas damaged by the Thomas Fire and other December wildfires to watch out for potential scammers, fake charities and unlicensed contractors.
Criminals targeting neighborhoods burned in October's wine country fires in Northern California became so pervasive that the FBI formed a task force with FEMA and some local agencies to combat fraud last month.
One new twist in Northern California, where some 8,000 homes burned, is identity thieves submitting bogus claims for federal disaster assistance grants. When some real fire victims show up at FEMA, they find somebody has already filed a claim for their losses, said David Passey, spokesman for the FEMA office in Oakland
That has not happened to a significant extent in Southern California because the Thomas Fire was only declared a federal disaster on Tuesday.
Still, some scammers are already working the Thomas Fire area, collecting money up front to haul away fire debris, said Brian Rafelson, the head of the consumer fraud unit for the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
"That money is never returned and the people never come to perform the services," he said.
His office is also investigating some cases rental property price gouging. It’s illegal to bump up rents more than 10 percent following a disaster.
What to do about suspected fraud:
For contractors, fire victims should verify they are licensed with the state Contractors License Board, and that they are bonded against damage claims and insure their workers. Licensed contractors are listed by both name and company.
For charities, Guidestar.org has a searchable database that contains financial information for many nonprofit organizations. Some newer and smaller nonprofits might not show up in Guidestar. The California Department of Justice's Registry of Charitable Trusts is another place to look for information about a charity.
County district attorney's consumer fraud offices and local police can take complaints.
FEMA asks the public to report instances of fraud, waste and abuse of disaster aid funds. The U.S. Department of Justice operates the National Center for Disaster Fraud.