Disaster and pandemic scams target Texas residents

(STL.News) – Authorities are warning Texans of potential fraud following the landfall of Hurricane Hanna while continuing to remind the public of coronavirus-related scams, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick.

As residents continue to deal with the issues surrounding COVID-19, some have the added burden of surviving in the aftermath of Hurricane Hanna which made landfall in South Texas along the Coastal Bend area over the weekend.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office works with a multitude of federal, state and local agencies to address the varied threats resulting from natural disasters such as Hurricane Hanna as well as scams related to national crises.  These disasters often bring out the best in human compassion and spirit, but can also lead to unscrupulous individuals and organizations taking advantage of those in need of and/or providing government services.  Examples of typical illegal activity include:

  • Impersonation of federal law enforcement officials
  • Identity theft
  • Fraudulent claims to insurance companies and federal government
  • Fraudulent activity related to donations and charitable giving
  • Price gouging
  • Theft, looting and other violent crime

“Along the Gulf Coast we are well practiced in disaster fraud,” said Patrick.  “Anyone who lies, cheats or steals to receive federal benefits they would not otherwise get, will be prosecuted by my office.”

The added issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic compounds the possible instances of fraud and other types of illegal activity. In addition to the economic payment scams previously reported, several other fraudulent schemes involve masks, personal protection equipment (PPE) and other COVID-19 related items.  The public is reminded to exercise increased due diligence and caution when dealing with new suppliers or vendors, especially when using a third-party broker.

As demand for PPE increases, scammers may advertise equipment they do not actually have in attempts to make a quick profit.  These PPE products may be counterfeit and mislabeled, and some may not exist at all.  Some fraudsters reach out directly to consumers and government entities through email or social media to push their products.  Red flags that a seller may be engaging in a scam include:

  • Unusual payment terms
  • Last-minute price changes
  • Last-minute excuses for delay in shipment
  • Unexplained source of a large quantity of material
  • Evidence of re-packaging or mislabeling

Members of the public are encouraged to contact The National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) to report all types of disaster and COVID-19 fraud.  The Disaster Fraud Hotline is 1-866-720-5721 and is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Members of the public can also see additional resources and information HERE, where they can also submit complaints of fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement related to any man-made or natural disaster and criminal activity related to COVID-19.

In addition, Texans can contact the Office of the Attorney General’s toll-free complaint line at (800) 621-0508 or file a complaint online if they have encountered scams or price gouging.  There are ongoing federal and state prohibitions on charging exorbitant prices for PPE during this time of national emergency.

The NCDF is the result of a partnership between the Department of Justice and various law enforcement and regulatory agencies to form a national coordinating agency within the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice to improve and further the detection, prevention, investigation, and prosecution of fraud related to natural and man-made disasters, and to advocate for the victims of such fraud.

It was established in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region.  It is the national coordinating agency for all man-made and natural disasters with Gulf Coast headquarters located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Since 2005, the NCDF has received over 100,000 complaints.

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