With the Carr Fire nearing containment, the thousands of people affected by the historic blaze are returning home, assessing the damage and deciding when and how to rebuild or repair.
And hot on their heels are the scammers, looters, quick-buck artists and fraudulent contractors who flock to every significant flame like amoral moths.
The Shasta County District Attorney, the U.S. Attorney and even the FBI have a message for those planning on profiting on others’ misfortune: there will be consequences.
“We have zero tolerance for those who seek to prey on people at their most vulnerable moments,” said McGregor Scott, the U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of California, at a Thursday press conference at the District Attorney’s office.
“There will be a price to pay for anyone who attempts to capitalize on this tragedy by stealing money from taxpayers, charities or other individuals who are rightfully entitled to receive those monies. In other words, to those would-be thieves, there is no such thing as easy money,” Scott said.
Pressure will be coming from the county level as well, warned Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett, who said her office is already processing cases of looting, price gouging and contracting without a contractor’s license.
“We are out there investigating those and we are proactively out there protecting the community and we will continue to do that,” Bridgett said. Rebuilding is going to be a lengthy process and both local and out-of-town contractors will be here in droves. “Many of them will be here, and kind, and trying to help us. And that’s what we want.
“But there’s going to be people pretending to be contractors, and they’re not here to help you. And we want you to know we’ll be watching for them, we’re going to be looking for them, and we’re going to make sure they are not allowed to victimize the community.”
Bridgett urged homeowners to be vigilant and wary of any suspicious offer of help. “We want you to pay attention. When someone comes to your home to do work and if they say give me cash and we’ll put you in front, don’t fall for that.”
Any work over $500 requires a contractor’s license, which can be verified online at www.cslb.ca.gov. In a federal- or state-declared disaster area, consumers have the right to cancel a signed contract within seven business days.
Homeowners should not pay more than 10 percent down, or $1,000—whichever is less. Do not pay cash and do not let the payments get ahead of the work. Get three bids, check references, and get a written contract.
Contracting without a license is usually a misdemeanor, but when a disaster has been declared, the crime becomes a felony with a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and three years in jail.
Bridgett said her office has received reports of fake charities being established. “We all want to help but do your research. Call us (530-225-5391) or check with state and local agencies to make sure they are legitimate charities.”
Scott, a former Shasta County District Attorney, said he lived in Redding for six years and two of his sons were delivered at Mercy Medical Center. “Genuinely, our hearts go out to the community,” said Scott, who earlier said he viewed some of the Carr Fire damage with Redding Police Chief Roger Moore (who also lost his home in the fire). “It just breaks your heart.”
Unfortunately, Scott said, “in the midst of a disaster like this, there are some who would seek to take advantage of this tragedy to enrich themselves and prey on victims. We do not want one tragedy to turn into another.”
Scott said the Department of Justice proudly stands with state, county and local agencies in the effort to safeguard relief efforts.
Disaster-related fraud comes in many forms, Scott said, and the more common schemes include applying for benefits individuals are not entitled to. “They’ll even steal the ID of actual victims,” he said.
Others prey on the generosity of individuals. “All too commonly, in past disasters, we’ve seen violations of federal antitrust laws in bid rigging, price fixing and price gouging. And we know anytime government funds start flowing into areas struck by disaster, some seek to improperly profit or divert those funds.”
Scott said it’s critical for the public to be the eyes and ears on the ground. People who suspect fraud is taking place, or fear they have been victimized themselves, are encouraged to report it to local law enforcement or call the national Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721.