U.S. Attorney expects ‘hundreds or thousands’ of fraud complaints after Irma

MIAMI (WSVN) - South Florida’s top federal prosecutor is warning Hurricane Irma victims in the Florida Keys to be on high alert against disaster fraud.

Many in the Keys have already lost so much.

“For two days it was hell,” said one resident. “You didn’t know if you were going to make it or not.”

“Hard for everybody coming back,” said another resident, close to tears.

Thousands of people in the Keys have realized that they’re homeless and need help.

“This is what we are sleeping on, anything we can salvage from the mess,” said a resident holding a pair of life vests along with a tattered blanket and cushion.

The storm has left many residents tired, desperate and distracted by what will be a long road to rebuild. A federal prosecutor said it’s a recipe for disaster fraud.

“When people are tired, when people are desperate, sometimes they let their guard down, and that’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg.

Greenberg warned that scammers attempting to take advantage of vulnerable Irma victims will be met with the fury of the federal government.

He said he has already received reports of attempted fraud. “That’s not a good thing that the fraud is happening, but it is a good thing that the complaints are coming in,” said Greenberg. “And we expect the number of complaints to easily hit the hundreds or thousands very quickly.”

The prosecutor has launched a “disaster fraud task force,” assigning Miami-based federal prosecutors to go after scammers.

“Not only do they not care that people are suffering, I think in the minds of some criminals that’s a good thing, because they can take advantage of the fact people are suffering,” said Greenberg.

Some key advice to avoid fraud:

  • Do not give out personal information over the phone.
  • Real FEMA inspectors would never take money from victims.
  • Victims do not have to pay a fee to apply for federal disaster assistance.

“If somebody calls and says ‘Hi, I’m FEMA, give me money, do this,’ people have to be careful,” said Greenberg. “FEMA doesn’t really operate that way. The federal government doesn’t operate that way.”

The Justice Department said they learned a lot about disaster fraud after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 1,400 people were charged with fraud.

An oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 also led to federal prison sentences, as did Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Greenberg said Hurricane Irma won’t be any different.

If you suspect any sort of fraud connected to Hurricane Irma, call the Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or click here. The hotline is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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