CAROLINA SHORES, N.C. (WECT) - Barely more than 24 hours after an EF-2 tornado from Hurricane Dorian touched down in The Farm at Brunswick neighborhood, leaving significant damage in its wake, emergency officials were getting reports of suspicious activity.
According to the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Brunswick County Emergency Services, residents were reporting sightings of FEMA representatives in the neighborhood, both walking around and flying drones.
The only problem — state officials confirmed FEMA had not dispatched anyone to the area.
Deputy Director of Brunswick EMS Scott Garner said whether it’s through impersonating an official, price gouging or switch-and-bait contractor agreements, scams and fraud can run rampant after a storm, even one as minor as Dorian.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there that are trying to make a dollar off of somebody else, or get what they can get,” Garner said. "So you’ve just got to be careful, cautious, in everything you do.”
Garner said the reports they received on Sept. 6 mirrored those of just a year ago after Hurricane Florence.
“We have had reports of individuals being in the county probably misrepresenting themselves as being part of FEMA [or] Homeland Security," Garner said. “We had the same situation happen after Florence.”
In that case, Garner said, one of the people allegedly pretending to be with FEMA crashed a drone into a home, further damaging the structure and requiring fire personnel to respond.
FEMA spokesperson Ken Higginbotham said the reports are not uncommon.
“You know, unfortunately when disasters happen, a lot of unscrupulous activity takes place, and that’s in the line of people taking advantage of those that were impacted by a disaster," Higginbotham said. "That includes fraud, it includes misrepresentation of FEMA representatives, and this is what is really concerning right now.”
In his experience, Higginbotham said, those misrepresenting themselves as FEMA employees are usually after personal information, such as social security numbers or insurance information.
However, he said, there are some cases where those pretending to be with FEMA will ask disaster victims for cash — something FEMA never does.
“There are a lot of fraudulent activities and scams that go on," he said. “Again, these people like to take advantage of those that have been impacted. It’s an opportunity for crime to go up, and there are some bad actors out there.”
Garner said in addition to reports of people impersonating FEMA, they’ve also already heard reports of price gouging and contractors offering to do basic repairs — such as putting on a tarp — for free, but then sending a bill if they aren’t granted the full repair contract.
“People are out there just trying to get their foot in the door, do what they can do to get your attention, to get you to be their person,” Garner said, "and then, unfortunately, they may try to take advantage of you.”
In the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein filed seven separate lawsuits against a total of 22 defendants for price gouging before and after the storms.
To date, Stein’s office has won $725,000 in judgments, and successfully barred multiple companies from further operation in the state.
The state price gouging law is still in effect after Hurricane Dorian — the law is effective at the date of the emergency disaster declaration, and remains active for at least 45 days, in this case until at least Oct. 14.
While there are ways of recovering funds or information lost to post-storm scams and fraud, it can be difficult.
That’s why both Garner and Higginbotham said they try to focus on keeping it from happening in the first place.
“We want to make people aware to guard against fraud, any type of misrepresentation, and if people suspect any fraud and are a bit unsure, that ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Higginbotham said.
To weed out potentially fake FEMA representatives, Higginbotham encourages everyone to demand to see the person’s federal identification card rather than going by appearance.
“The attire doesn’t make anything,” he said. "Anybody can get a hold of a FEMA shirt, or hat, or anything like that, but the identification credentials [are] the main way to identify that person as a true FEMA employee.”
If the person cannot produce that identification, Higginbotham suggests calling local authorities and trying to note any physical features or information about them that could be useful to an investigation.
The same emphasis on verification goes for contractors, Garner added.
“Always try to check to make sure that the person that you are dealing with, or the company that you were dealing with is legitimate," he said. "Get references, you know, try to as best you can look up to see if they’ve got complaints against them, whether the Better Business Bureau or other agencies, just to kind of see before you put your money and your funding out there just to make sure that you’re not going to get taken advantage of.”
There are several options for reporting suspicious activity or potential fraud:
- Contact the county’s sheriff’s office
- Call the N.C. fraud hotline 1-877-5-NO-SCAM
- File a complaint with the Attorney General’s office online
- Email the N.C. Department of Insurance at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (888) 680-7684
- Call the National Center for Disaster Fraud at (866) 720-5721