District Attorney Joyce Dudley is warning Santa Barbara County residents about fraudulent Federal Emergency Management Agency applications by identity thieves taking advantage of recent mudslide and wildfire victims.
Dudley said district attorney’s offices in Napa and Sonoma counties received several reports from residents whose personal identifying information, including their Social Security numbers, was used to file fraudulent applications for FEMA assistance.
Some residents who filed for FEMA assistance were told someone had already applied under their name, and others who had not submitted applications for assistance reported FEMA-affiliated inspectors came to their homes to ask about applications.
Dudley said FEMA will not send inspectors to a home unless you have filed an assistance application, and inspectors will not collect personal identifying information or bank account information at a residence.
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Information will only be requested when a person fills out the application online, or at a Local Assistance Center or residents who apply on the FEMA hotline, according to Dudley.
All FEMA employees and contractors have federally issued photo identification badges, and applicants should request to see it, Dudley said.
Residents who have not filed a FEMA application, and someone visits their home to conduct a FEMA inspection, should immediately contact law enforcement and report it to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General at 800-323-8603 or online at Oig.dhs.gov.
Residents who try to file a FEMA assistance application and are told someone has already filed it in their name should call the FEMA Office of the Chief Security Office at 866-223-0814 or report it online at FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov.
Contacting FEMA as soon as possible may prevent payment to a fraudulent applicant.
“FEMA will refer the report to the local FBI office for investigation,” Dudley said.
More information is available at www.disasterassistance.gov, www.fema.gov/disaster-fraud, or the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721.
Victims of identity theft should also notify local law enforcement and report illegal price gouging, charitable-solicitation fraud and contractor fraud, Dudley said.
It’s common after disasters for people to create GoFundMe campaigns soliciting monetary donations for others, and only the beneficiary has access to the money, according to company spokesperson Kate Cichy.
Cichy said donor funds are held until a beneficiary is added and verified through “proprietary models,” and then funds are released to that organization or person.
If organizers set up funds for themselves, that is also verified, Cichy said.
Accounts do not disclose who the beneficiary is, however, although account creators may say who the funds are intended for.
“A very small percentage of people who try to take advantage of the situation and if it does happen, we catch them, and if we don’t, which rarely happens, we have the GoFundMe guarantee,” Cichy said.
The company will refund donors if money does not go to the intended target, and makes beneficiaries whole if something goes awry on that end, she said.
Additional information about how the crowdfunding campaign monitors the platform for fraud and measures to protect the site can be found here.
Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli contributed to this story.