A wildfire task force will fan out over fire-ravaged areas this week to warn homeowners to beware of would-be criminals who prey on victims of natural disasters, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced Monday.
Investigators from the District Attorney’s Office, the California Department of Insurance, the Contractors State License Board and the Department of Motor Vehicles will disseminate literature and speak with residents about fraud prevention and post signs warning unlicensed contractors that operating in a declared state of emergency area is a felony.
A similar effort took place during the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.
“We’re joining forces to make sure people affected by the fires aren’t revictimized,” Dumanis said. “The sooner we warn residents about would-be scammers, the less likelihood there is that people will be duped.”
During states of emergency, it is illegal for businesses to increase prices of essential goods and services by more than 10 percent. That applies to food, goods or services used for emergency cleanup, medical supplies, home heating oil, building materials, housing, transportation and gasoline. In addition, it is a misdemeanor for a hotel or motel to increase regular rates.
Looting during states of emergency automatically becomes a felony, which can be punishable by three years in prison.
“Families should be extremely cautious if approached by aggressive agents, adjusters or contractors after a disaster,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. “While the majority of businesses are honest and have good intentions, unfortunately there are always bad actors waiting to take advantage of disaster victims.”
Working as an unlicensed contractor during a state of emergency is a felony. Anyone considering repair work should ask for proof of licensing such as a pocket license and a second photo ID. Always verify the license number matches the contractor you are dealing with and beware of scare tactics, odd calls or unsolicited contacts. Make sure the contractor carries workers’ compensation and liability insurance.
“Take the time to protect yourself against con artists who will take your money and run – or incompetent contractors who will perform shoddy work,” said Contractors State License Board Registrar Steve Sands. “Hire only licensed contractors and check their qualifications with the CSLB.”
Also Monday, the FBI put out a warning to nonfire victims to be cautious when making donations to help those who lost homes or businesses in the fires.
“Unfortunately, criminals can exploit these tragedies for their own gain by sending fraudulent emails and creating phony websites designed to solicit contributions,” the FBI said.
The agency offered the following tips to avoid donation scams:
- Do not respond to unsolicited email.
- Be skeptical of individuals asking for donations via email or social networking sites.
- Beware of organizations with copycat names similar to but not exactly the same as those with reputable charities, and organizations that use a .com web address instead of an .org.
- Research a charity independently on the Internet rather than click on a unsolicited link.
- And be wary of anyone who is too aggressive in asking for a donation or asks for cash, a wire transfer or check addressed to an individual rather than an organization.
In the aftermath of natural disasters, debris-clearing scams often surface, Dumanis added.
Do not provide payment upfront and be sure to ask where the debris is being taken. Scammers often ask for money up-front, and then disappear. Sometimes they dump debris on a neighbor’s property or park, which may cause you to be responsible for the costs and penalties.
— District Attorney’s Office and City News Service contributed to this report.
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