Almost as predictable as the wildfires in California are the scams that inevitably follow.
People in vulnerable positions – who are panicked and in search of assistance – sometimes fall for any number of scams. It doesn’t help that people running fraudulent schemes often know how to make their efforts appear legitimate.
These are a few of the cons and bad business practices that local and state officials are urging residents to watch out for in the wake of the latest wildfire.
This is America, after all, so individual businesses are free to charge whatever they want for goods or services. But it’s also true that the rules change in the aftermath of emergencies, like the one Gov. Jerry Brown declared last Thursday in San Diego County when the Lilac Fire broke out.
During those periods, state law prevents companies from increasing their prices more than 10 percent for an essential good or service, unless they can show their own costs have been increased. Julien Brown of San Diego’s Better Business Bureau has specifically cited water, housing and food as worth watching.
The BBB, in fact, runs a crowd-sourced interactive of potential scams that have been reported by the public. The real-time database list more than 90,000 at the moment – about 500 of which came from San Diego County – although the recent additions involved computer phishing attempts.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan noted that the rules surrounding emergency pricing extend 30 days beyond the governor’s declaration, and they apply to gasoline, transportation, home heating oil, building materials and medical supplies.
“Price gouging during a state of an emergency is not only a crime, it is re-victimizing victims who may have lost everything in a wildfire,” Stephan said in a statement.
Days before wildfires began raging in North County and beyond, the State Bar of California filed disciplinary charges against an attorney accused of pocketing wildfire settlement money in Yolo County.
The State Bar warns that rules prohibit predatory behavior by lawyers following natural disasters like fires. They’re not supposed to show up at hospitals soliciting clients, for example, or to approach people who might be too distressed or injured to make decisions about hiring an attorney.
Then there are people who simply pose as lawyers.
“In the wake of the fires, there is also the risk of victims being approached in person, by mail, email or other means, by people posing as attorneys. Consumers must carefully check that people offering legal services are legitimate and licensed to provide such services,” the State Bar warning says.
But it’s not just lawyers being highlighted by authorities.
Stephan, the San Diego DA, is also cautioning the public about “aggressive agents, adjusters or contractors” and advising homeowners, when working considering a debris-clearing companies, not to pay cash up front.
Operating as an unlicensed contractor during a state of emergency is a felony.
In 2016, a Lancaster couple alleged that their insurance adjuster – a middle man who connects fire victims with companies to repair damage – took checks and forged signatures, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
Fake Aid and Charities
After wildfires broke out in the Bay Area in October, Brown’s Office of Emergency Services as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security urged Californians to be prepared for odd solicitations. Turns out it’s a bad idea to give out one’s Social Security number or bank account number to a stranger.
In the event someone claims to be an inspector with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. Small Business Administration, it’s kosher to ask for identification.
Same goes for donation requests. State and federal officials say, at a bare minimum, one should get the exact name of the charity making the pitch and call them directly to verify. Anyone who just shows up on your property is worth second-guessing.
“Trust your instincts,” said Lt. Jeff Duckworth, a member of the San Diego County Sheriff’s financial crime unit. “Resist the pressure to give.”
If you do donate, get a receipt.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department posted an alert on its Facebook page Monday saying a retired fire captain had been on the list of potential marks. The department doesn’t take donations by phone.
“Fortunately, the retired captain is savvy and knows that this is a potential scam or effort at identity theft,” the post read. “There are many legitimate organizations dedicated to disaster relief but please, take the time to do some research before making a donation.”
The California attorney general’s office keeps a database of legitimate charities.
Also Worth Knowing
In response to complaints from car owners, the California state insurance commissioner has put insurance companies on notice that imposing a ban on writing or adjusting existing policies in wildfire areas is illegal. Officials are threatening, in response, to impose fines on those companies.
You can file a complaint online.
But if you do need federal assistance, it’s always best to use your own name. A TV station in the Bay Area reported that investigators are looking at potentially fraudulent disaster loss claims by homeowners. Several people in Napa County claimed that they never applied for assistance but got letters anyhow.
“It says somebody applied for a loan in my name,” one resident in Napa County, Rachel Clark, told KTVU. “I was immediately suspicious.”